Monday, November 09, 2009
In King Vidor's 1928 classic, "The Crowd," a baby's father speculates to the neighbors on the grand things ahead for him, and the boy grows up with a sense that he will be special. He leaves for New York City to pursue his singular destiny and then, in a famous shot, the camera zooms in on his office at work and we see him as one in a roomful of faceless clerks, lost in the crowd.
There is a lot of Oblomov in this young man, as he dreams without planning or acting on those dreams. Still, the overarching message of the film is of futility and of the simple fact that most of us are destined to be lost in the crowd.
Having been through my midlife crisis some years ago, I'm content with my place in the cosmos. However, it has lately occurred to me to question another way of fading, faceless, voiceless and unknown into the ether, one that is, as in the case of "The Crowd's" John Sims, a great disappointment after all the promises of greatness.
The on-line world, on the one hand, has allowed people who are separated by long distances but who share certain interests or traits to find each other, which is what happens here and on the blogs listed in the rail at the right. Some have more traffic than others, but there is a community of friends who wouldn't have come together in the three-dimensional world. I think that is quite valuable.
On the other hand, there is a greater promise that is clearly not coming true, and that is the concept of a grand salon in which everyone gets to take part in the conversation.
It is, in part, a simple matter of scale. Huffington Post, as I write this, features a lead story from the Washington Post about the economy and unemployment. It was posted less than six hours ago but has already attracted 2,906 comments. On the Washington Post site itself, where the story appeared yesterday (Sunday), it has amassed 28 pages of comments.
Are the comments intelligent and constructive, or irrelevant, uninformed and toxic? What on earth difference does it make? Who is going to read it all? Who's going to read half of it?
And, even when the mass of postings is manageable, there is an issue whether people even know how to have a conversation. Venom aside -- and having to wade through vulgar, irrelevant taunts is a good reason not to bother participating -- I've got serious doubts about the amount of actual conversation that takes place on-line. Too often, it feels like Monty Python's Argument Clinic, where the fellow wants a spirited debate but finds nothing but abuse and contradiction. In too many on-line forums, participants arrive with their positions in place, ready to be defended, rather than with opinions which could be changed in an actual conversation.
Politics and religion are obvious places where you expect this. But the utter lack of meaningful exchange is everywhere. Recently, I gave up on a comic strips forum where I'd been active for more than a decade. When I first checked in, it was full of both aspiring and established cartoonists, as well as intelligent commentators on the medium. It had its ups and downs, and, over the course of a decade, nearly all the cartoonists, pro and amateur, drifted away. But the group muddled on, and there were some pleasant people there, some of whom turn up here regularly.
However, there was a frog-in-the-pot factor at work in the group's decline. Now, I know that the frog in the pot who doesn't notice the water getting hotter is a myth, and, if I were to use the metaphor in an on-line conversation, here's what would happen: The actual topic of discussion would immediately disappear under a pile of comments about the heat-sensing abilities of frogs, and would never emerge again.
But, if I may use that biologically inaccurate metaphor, the decline of conversation only struck me a few weeks ago when someone raised a question about a comic strip in which a cow was standing on a cliff. The fellow asked how, since farms are in flatland, could you have a cow on a cliff?
Several of us responded that farms are not exclusively on flat land. Two participants even posted photographs of cows on hillsides. His response was that, while he appreciated all the opinions, he realized that it was only a cartoon and that real farms are not actually found on hillsides.
Then, just a few days later, I found myself being dragged into a conversation about the newspaper industry and realized that, if multiple pictures of cows on a hillside is not enough to persuade someone that cows can be on hillsides, there was nothing to be gained in trying to offer evidence about much of anything. There was certainly no profit in pointlessly arguing over something that mattered to me more than cows.
At the same time, I stopped bothering to add comments on the massive news sites where nothing you say stays any longer than a snowflake on a griddle. It is like whispering into a hurricane, and I was wasting my time and efforts.
A month later, the sun continues to rise each morning, and, best of all, if I say that the sun rises in the morning, nobody chimes in to point out that, in fact, the sun doesn't actually move around the earth, and nobody else then argues that, in a manner of speaking, it does.
It's not a retreat into total virtual silence on my part. I still participate in some smaller, focused forums, and I speak up on Facebook, which is so ephemeral that I don't think anyone mistakes it for a real conversation.
And I speak up when it seems clear that a failure to speak up is the same as allowing toxic bigotry or harmful ignorance to triumph. Probably to no avail, but there is an issue of personal morality to be considered.
I also maintain my own small salon here, and visit those salons where the conversation is genteel, amusing and even, on occasion, elevating.
I'm sorry that the promise of the grand on-line salon has proved to be impossible to fulfill. But so has the dream of world peace. We'll all get along somehow anyway.