Monday, November 09, 2009

Futility

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.


22 comments:

Vt Teacher said...

First!

Vt Teacher said...

Sorry, had to...

I think it's why you have lecture classed that can be huge numbers but seminars need to be small to be fruitful. I basically ignore comment sections except to get a sense of whether readers are in agreement of what's written. Even so, I'll only look at the first page of comments.

ronnie said...

That forum will be much the poorer for your absence. MUCH.

But having wandered away myself about two years ago, I understand why you eventually gave up.

ronnie said...

PS I'm just happy some of the better voices still turn up in their own blogs and in comments on each others' blogs. Perhaps that is the real valuable conversation of the interwebs.

Sherwood Harrington said...

I've taken the liberty of posting a link to this on RACS. (That turned out to be a little challenging, by the way, given your proclivity to not title your posts!)

You know what I'll miss most about RACS? Ronniecat's pets page.

It was a warm reinforcement of the sense of community we once had. Maybe we can find another e-place to gather in sometime.

Sherwood Harrington said...

By the way, the Sun really *does* rise and set. In fact, any celestial motion can be replicated in a geocentric way:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QVuU2YCwHjw

Brian Fies said...

(Reposting to fix a typo)

That's OK. I know where to find you.

Your cow story is perfect. I recently took part in a thread on that same forum that left me marveling at how some people manage to type with brains evidently incapable of thought. But I also know first-hand that at least a few comics pros keep an eye on that forum, and that opinions expressed there are often read by people you might not expect--which makes the loss of a knowledgable, reasonable voice more acute, I think.

I had a similar, smaller epiphany years ago on a Star Trek site, of all things, when I got into an argument with some nobody about some nothing and realized I was actually awake in bed at 2 a.m. seething at his idiocy and crafting my scathing reply. That's nuts. I've concluded that no one has ever convinced anyone of anything on the Web (although I can recall a time or two someone has changed my mind and I said so), and since then I've resolved to keep it light and express little of any consquence about anything--mostly for my own sanity. As I've slid from cartooning amateur to semi-profesional, I've learned that I have to be even more careful; what you say online has more weight, sticks with you, and can have consequences. Such restraint can still allow for some interesting conversations about things like comic strips, but it's no basis for an honest or sophisticated exchange of ideas. Or a salon.

I think another thing that happens is you just get tired of having the same conversations and debates. You know the players, you know what they're going to say. What was interesting once, and may still be fresh to someone else, isn't worth rehashing again. You're tired, and moving on. Circle of life.

I'll just leave you with this link as cold comfort you're not alone:
http://xkcd.com/386/

MikeB said...

Gee, and I barely got to know you. I found you witty and wise. It's funny that I find the group's message count easy to deal with because I mark so many threads for ignoring, due to their interminable bickering that some days it looks like there is barely any traffic. Funny but sad.

--Mike Blake

Ted said...

You'll be missed, Mike -- just as Ronnie is missed. (I've been largely missing too, but that's because my employer's IT shut down all the usenet ports, and I hate the web-based access.)

Thanks for the many moments of enlightenment and the laughs, and for the years of your company and counsel.

Ted Kerin

Clix said...

Just wanted to add my voice to those sorry to see you leave RACs. Your posts were in that smallish group that carried some credence in my mind. The din of a world wide 'salon' is tiring so I can understand. Luckily your blog has been in my reader for a while, but I can't help but think that if it wasn't for RACs I never would of found it.
Carry On.
Thom aka Clix

michael said...

My interest in posting was always to understand the world not correct it. Sadly the time when the comment section featured comments has been replaced by people answering their own questions. No one listens anymore. I have returned to talking to my wall, it is more productive.

I do wonder if the number of personal blogs by cartoonists and fans has reduced the need for a place such as RACs? I tend to enjoy more finding my answers reading a variety of blogs than dealing with the nonsense I find in the comment sections.

Yupyop aka Michael

BunnyHugger said...

Well, I'm not leaving r.a.c.s anytime soon, but it's a shame some of my favorite posters have decided to leave. I still like the format of Usenet so much better than any alternatives, which means I am going to have a disappointing future.

Peter B. Steiger said...

As always, Mike, you are the voice of sanity; I was nodding in agreement with each point you made. So often I have bloviated (thanks, Brooke McEldowney for a handy word) on some topic or other and moved on, only to find that weeks, nay months later the same people are still hollering back and forth over the same pointless absurdities.

And Beefies, that xkcd comic you linked to is my constant response to folks who take online discussions too seriously.

... pbs, adding nellieblog to my bookmarks

Robin said...

Mike and all -- I'll echo what BunnyHugger wrote. RACS is the last Usenet group I've stayed active on, and I've enjoyed having a single stop where I could find some of my favorite voices ... several of whom have lately trickled away, to our loss. With each departure, the signal-to-noise ratio deteriorates. As Usenet no longer seems to have many new users, I suspect that even the best groups will eventually die of attrition.
I know where to find many of you on blogs, but I miss having you all all in one place, interacting together. And I can't manage to keep up with all the blogs of all the people whose words I enjoy.
Brian, I was thinking of that same xkcd panel halfway through reading your post, and if you hadn't linked it, I would have. It's my most-often-mailed comic, and I have it permanently displayed on my facebook page.

jtogyer said...

"I know where to find many of you on blogs, but I miss having you all all in one place, interacting together. And I can't manage to keep up with all the blogs of all the people whose words I enjoy."

Let me second this. I have been reading/posting at r.a.c.s, on and off, since 1992. My activity tends to wax and wane because there are so many other things going on, off- and on-line. (Even when I don't post, I'm generally lurking.)

So I don't blame you for pulling the pin, Deacon, but it is sad to lose someone, and it was nice to have together in one convenient newsgroup so many smart people arguing so passionately about something fundamentally silly.

See you in the funny pages?

Ted said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ted said...

I think I understand Mike's point, that over time perhaps he felt like he was banging his head....not against a wall, but against the great void of infinity.

I suspect that this feeling may increase, in proportion to the amount of thought that is put into each post. Which is why some of us are not overly taxed by contributing just the occasional snark, crack or kudo. In Mike's case, undoubtedly it took more out of him, than he was getting back. Which says more about Mike, than about usenet.

Somebody once said, publishing a book of poetry is like dropping a flower petal into the Grand Canyon, and waiting for an echo. Usenet will give you a reply, but if it's the same reply every time, you might as well be howling into a tricked-out echo chamber.

Anyhow, if I can switch metaphors one more time, I want Mike to know that not all of his pearls were cast before swine (I know that's not what he was saying), and that he has made a difference, helping some of us not with what to think, but with how to think. The blog is now bookmarked.

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

Blast.

I guess these groups just naturally process through beginnings, golden ages and declines. That fact that a group is -- or starts out -- an exceptionally smart and respectful community still doesn't immunize it against creeps and dolts. On the contrary, they seem to zero in on it like termites.

Really really hate to see another of racs's brightest lights gone, though.

aemeijers said...

Just wanted to say good luck in the future endeavors (sp?)- we'll miss you on RACS, but I do understand about the signal/noise ratio, the thread drift, and so on and so on. I didn't agree with all you said, but you almost always made me think.
(and looking at the stacks of undone chores around here, I should probably cut back on Usenet myself...)

aem sends...

Dann said...

Me too, Mike.

Me too.

--
Regards,
Dann

Mike said...

Nice to hear from so many familiar folks, and it doesn't sound like I am particularly leading or trailing the trend on this. It would be nice to have a central spot, but there is so much crossover among blogs that we do meet -- and several of the people here are those I've met through other blogs, either by my visiting from there or their coming here.

And I hope we continue to meet, other places as well as here. But especially here.

So come on in and set a spell. Take your shoes off. Y'all come back now, hear?

Jym said...

=v= Usenet newsgroups were of higher quality in the early days, even though most contributors were computer nerds, a population not especially renowned for social skills nor writing ability. This tells me something about quality and quantity.

When Usenet grew, because at the time it was the Net, it devolved rapidly. The aforementioned nerds came up with sophisticated tools to filter out spam, troublesome writers, and even specific threads. Using these tools, you could actually focus on the good stuff (you and Ronnie are high-scorers in my newsreaders), though this creates highly idiosyncratic views. You couldn't give an unqualified recommendation for r.a.c.s, for example; you'd have to advise people to score Sherwood #1 with a bullet and filter out that Jym character.

Webforums and blog comments have none of this good stuff; the vast majority is an undifferentiated blob of blather, but the vast majority of folks on what is now the Net never knew that it could be any other way. One can select blogs to subscribe to and handle them with an aggregator, which serves some of the same ends, but it has yet to converge on the capabilities that most of us once had available.

A modern major problem (and one that Usenet did not originally have) is anonymity. Blogs and most especially news comment sections are filled with hit-and-run ranters with throwaway email addresses. This thwarts any social aspect of the discussion, nor does it motivate people to back up their words to maintain their credibility.

Usenet's former problem of high volume have been replaced with one of attrition. Maybe the dustup on r.a.c.s is due to someone wanting something, anything to happen. I really can't tell.