My Cyberspace: Part Two

As you can see from part one, each modern computer itself is a vast terrain for exploration. Every application is a maze of screens and dialogues and options, providing tools which offer an incalculable variety of possible workflows and possibilities. Operating systems themselves are highly configurable and have deep levels of access and abstraction going down from the high-level user interface deep into the internals upon which it depends. All the files and resources which came with software can be pulled apart and opened, modded and configured. A modern computer is an entire cyberspace in and of itself.

The Web

But, of course, once the internet gets thrown into the mix, computers often seem to become flattened into mere machines which run your web browser. It wasn’t always this way, but started in 1993 when the world wide web stole the whole show. All the old empires of controlled online spaces were toppled by it’s out-of-control spontaneous growth, and the browser has come to be synonymous with the internet (if not computing itself!) to very many users. In the mid-90s websites and homepages had become the trendiest new thing and everyone just had to have one. People bought computers and started learning the mark-up language used to create hypertext documents – or paid someone that did.

Of course, this was a step backward technologically speaking: HyperCard from Apple, for instance, offered a much better model for creation of hypermedia in the age of graphical user interfaces: dragging and dropping elements in a manner more similar to slideshow presentation software. Of course, when it comes to fads and what gets popular, technical merits are never the deciding factor and so 25 years later we’re still stuck with HTML, JavaScript, and web browsers instead of what might have been. Perhaps the upshot of having a web which requires engagement with computer languages, instead of seamless graphical metaphors and icons, is the constant reminder that computers are still telegram processing machines.

In the 90s and early 2000s the hypertext of the world wide web was a lot closer to text, and much less hyper. What made it interactive was the hyperlinks which let you turn any part of the page into a way to access another page. Initially web servers were just dumb file hosts, containing the .html and .jpg files in directories: surfing the web was like following a path in a DOS file system, except with a domain name instead of a drive letter. The first major innovation was the creation of dynamically-generated hypertext, allowing for pages that were created by the server on-the-fly when they were requested by a client web browser. The server software could do things like create a page representing a conversation, pulling records from a database which contained usernames and posts.

In this way the web started to be used for things that local software had usually been used for. Instead of opening the email program on your computer, you could read your email from your webmail account at Hotmail. Your “inbox” was not a static HTML file, but was generated live as soon as you clicked the bookmark to represent the state of your email account. It takes a lot more processing power on the server-side to build the website on-demand like this, but nowadays nearly every website works this way. The days of a web server as a dumb file host serving up plain text and picture files are long gone. This is how, in the past 20 years, we’ve moved gradually back toward the terminal/mainframe or client/server model of computing. Instead of the screen having all your apps in windows, now your browser is a screen with your apps in its tabs.

Dynamic hypertext allowed for websites to have guest books and web forums, and for news sites to have comment sections. Many sites popped up which existed merely to link to and host discussion on other pages which they linked to. Sometimes those sites became so popular that they’d crash the servers of any site submitted to them, or sometimes the community would have a sizable contingent of nasty people who would raid those sites en masse and flood the forums with spam and troll posts. Newspapers and magazines would complain when news aggregators like Fark.com would link directly to their stories instead of their home page. What’s a newspaper without a front page, or a magazine without a cover story? Visitors would only see a single article and never end up browsing through the whole online issue, instead just going back to the news aggregator to comment there.

There were many other ways to explore the web and find out about new sites. There were curated, phonebook-like directories, like the paper yellow pages I had or the much more sensible digital ones like Yahoo! There were web rings, which was when many sites all related to a similar theme would link to each other in an ordered chain, each letting you go forward or back until you looped around. The problem with web rings is that if one site went offline then the chain would be broken at that spot and the sites linking to and from that page would need to get in contact and manually route about the damage by linking to each other. Still, the image that web rings bring to mind, that of a group of people standing in a circle holding hands, really captures the spirit of human connection and community online.

Search engines came up as processing power became available to handle the levels of server-side processing power which their services demanded. A search engine crawls through the web (using software imaginatively called web-spiders) traversing page after page and following all the links while recording. Then users can query the database and look through dynamically-generated result pages. There were so many new websites and pages being created all the time that you could not, nor still can record or navigate or order them all. On the internet, the territory is the only true map and all maps leave out most of the picture.

This is why I’m sure that everyone has their own cyberspace, and why I can only tell the history of mine. A history of the internet is impossible because everyone does their own thing, and in their lifetime will only get a tiny glimpse of all the information that is out there. It reminds me of that old advertisement for broadband internet: a man is rapidly clicking through websites which are loading instantly, faster and faster, until suddenly the screen goes black and an error message pops ups reading, “I’m sorry. You have reached the end of the internet. Please use the Back button on your web browser to return to a page you have already visited.” In theory, the man would only have to wait a day or two to go find another couple minutes of brand-new web to click through before hitting the wall again. At least, if all the new websites which had been made in that time had managed to be linked to by existing ones, and crawled over by web spiders to be indexed or directory-listed or added to a web ring. Of course, since the web is (as it’s very name implies) not linear, and web ring didn’t really last, there is no real order to it all and never will be. Maybe it could all be organized eventually if humanity one day overcome all semantic differences and finally got on the same page regarding the meaning of commonly used words…. just kidding.

Growing Up Before Social Media

When we finally got dial-up internet in my house I was in Grade 7. Since it would tie up the phone line, I got into the habit of going to bed at around eight o’clock in the evening, wearing earplugs to fall asleep while my family were still up and making noise. I’d wake up at 3:30 or four in the morning and surf the internet until 8 when I’d have to get ready for school. This was my basic schedule until we finally got DSL and I could use the internet whenever I wanted, worry-free.

In the eighties and early nineties, before the world wide web, most users of the internet had been college and university students. Each September a new class of students would use all the various pre-web networking programs and start messing around, spamming everyone, writing emails IN ALL CAPS and generally behaving badly. Eventually they’d learn all the rules and proper behaviour after the first month or so and the internet would return to general civility. But with the deregulation and commercialization of the internet in the early 90s, followed by the proliferation of the World Wide Web, people started pouring onto the internet in droves. It was called The Eternal September, and ever since the internet has had a constant churn with no way to uniformly absorb or discipline the oncoming masses common civility and protocol. Internet culture was out of control and words like netizenship and cyber-etiquette were old fashioned and basically unknown.

Instead of the dignified place of discourse befitting a military or academic communication platform, the internet became a sprawling wasteland of ever-growing unconnected communities. It is full of information and drama, facts and cults, a place to get lost, to find other voices, to build a place far away from reality. In the time after the Dot-com bubble burst at the turn of the millennium, but before social media exploded in 2008, it was a wild west frontier that few businesses had any business in beyond owning a website and an email address. Before social media companies decided to just start selling everyone’s private lives, it was commonly held that the internet was useless for making money. It is in this short period, less than a decade long, that teenage me grew up in cyberspace.

Compared to one’s experience in immediate social reality in “meatspace”, the sorts of people and voices one encounters in cyberspace are completely different. The proportions are inverted – well adjusted people do not spend all day online, and alienated and lonely people who one seldom encounters in active social engagement do. That’s not to paint everyone online with a broad brush – I’m painting a picture of what is represented at the extremes. Pejoratively put, the internet pre-social media was mostly either people who “have a life” and people who need to “get a life”, and the latter were far more invested in time, effort, breadth, and resolve. The internet (which is now called “the deep web” in contrast to social media) may have lots of people in it, but it belongs to the weirdos. Nowadays the 4chan dichotomy of Normies vs. NEETs (for not in employment, education, or training; i.e. lots of free time) seems to be gaining wider usage (amongst normies, of course) as a way to express this strong polarization of popularity, acceptability, belonging, and commitment among web users. The internet is where antisocial, alienated, disabled, and the sort of marginal people who lack public awareness campaigns fill their human need for socializing.

Web Communities

Broadly speaking web communities exist either as walled gardens of relatively normal people who come together around a single specialist or niche topic or project which can justly expunge all off-topic discussion, or as general hang-out places or haunts which attract the full range of civilized or free-for-all membership and must manage the variety and diversity of opinions, modes of discourse, and content accordingly. It is the latter type which end up causing the most trouble.

If a web community is going to last and function and remain civil it had to take lots of steps to brow-beat new users into behaving. The fight against the latent chaos of Eternal September is fought differently by different sites. In 1999 the tech website Slashdot.org pioneered many of those civilizing systems, most notably a well-thought out karma system. The culture of Slashdot tends to venerate posters with low user-ids which denote that they had joined the site early, before it became popular. Such long-time members are inherently stewards of the community, representing the original culture of the site which newer members are implicitly becoming a part of. Valuable contributions to the site earn users entry into a lottery system which grants winners temporary moderation powers, meaning that the job for policing the site is randomly distributed amongst responsible posters. Posters thus deputized into “mod duty” must refrain from contributing to the threads in which they opt to apply or remove karma from posts, tilting the discussions. Anonymity is permitted on Slashdot but is heavily discouraged as cowardly.

On 4chan anonymity is celebrated as a way of discouraging narcissism, self-importance, attention whoring, and individuality in general. Instead new people were often compelled to “lurk more”, meaning read more and post less until they learn to better to post in the style of the anonymous group think which ends up reading like one schizophrenic mind arguing with itself in an ever-changing, orderless flow. Unwanted posts are basically unrewarded with responses, leading them to slip away the fastest off the front page and out of attention, replaced by the constant bumping of those which do gain the community’s interest. The no-rules, anything goes style of 4chan was born from a rebellion and succession from its older sibling and total opposite: the SomethingAwful forums.

Discussion on Something Awful is quite formal (at least, for a web forum), reputation is paramount, and everything is categorized, rated, and archived. Proper grammar and punctuation is mandated in most of the sub-boards. Rule breaking gets you warnings, probations and can get you banned, meaning you have to repurchase your ten-dollar membership. Permabans are dolled for people so toxic that site doesn’t even want their money in exchange for putting up with them. If you don’t like someone, you can spend money to change their avatar or graffiti all over their online identity which they must then spend money to undo. The long-form discussions, with threads which last weeks, months, and years (often necessitating occasionally summary posts, or tables of contents edited into their start) demand much attention and involvement. This often leads to wonderful pay-offs in creativity and discussion and a strong familiarity with various individual contributors who earn their mindshare in the community.

It takes a lot of work and structure to stay on top of the process of socializing new users into conforming with a site’s pre-existing culture, maintaining whatever it is that keeps it the place which the established user-base call home. Yet cultures still drift and old users eventually always end up complaining about how a site is no longer what it used to be. Web communities have golden ages and they have dark ages — they have times of peace and times of war. They are composed of individuals who are not alike and whose contrast provides the content of the site: the discussions and debates and drama. And these different individuals are all alike in sharing the same implicit or explicit culture and values of discourse and civility which keeps that community functioning.

Most civil web forums have rules against name calling or direct insults directed toward people instead of engaging the substance of their arguments. Often times discussion on particular topics are banned because they just can’t be had civilly. This often isn’t seen as censorship because many sites have some demilitarized boards or other places where users can engage in unmitigated free speech — those places are just usually overrun with shit-talking, bitter arguments on contentious topics, gross pictures, and all the other stuff you want to keep quarantined. The maintenance of healthy internet cultures requires constant upkeep and adjustment to rules, board structure, and the needs of the community. Sometimes out-of-control, unmoderated boards are get shut-down when their drama spills over and creates a disruption or liability for everyone else. It’s a big internet — there is always someplace else to go.

Citing Sources and Debunkings

One of the features of hypertext is the ability to link to citations, and so arguments are often expected to be bolstered by references to scientific data. The internet has communities dedicated to many topics and people in the sciences enjoy discussing their fields of interest and educating people about them. Growing up online, for me, has meant lots of exposure to discussion and debates and the ability to investigate all sides of an issue and their evidence. Picking up what something is or how it works by reading or seeing those who understand it use it and wield it (or how the correct those who use it improperly) is an excellent way to learn. What is being learned is encountered within its proper context — in precisely the situations where it is relevant instead of abstractly. It’s very instructive to visit the enclaves of two competing schools of thought and see how each identifies in opposition to the other and what sort of beefs they have.

Besides just using a search engine, asking questions in a web community of experts or aficionados is the best way to get information online. Although sometimes other posters are finicky or scarce. There is no faster way to get an answer to a question on the internet than to propose a deliberately wrong answer to it as a matter of fact. Experts will race to correct you by throwing their knowledge and sources in your face much quicker than had you merely asked the question directly.

My cyberspace was disproportionately rational, skeptical, and atheist compared to the media at large and as a young teenager I loved reading all of the debunking which were produced by the communities I frequented. I was a big fan of the Bad Astronomy website, run by astronomer Phil Plait, which addressed many misconceptions and false claims about space and science. In one of his more famous projects he collected all of the supposed photographic and scientific evidence supporting the theory that the moon landings were a hoax and debunked each one by one. I was soon into all the other various communities committed to debunking unscientific beliefs, or “woo” under the banner of enlightened skepticism.

It’s a delightful intellectual indulgence to read bad theories being torn apart with science lessons and rational thinking. The emotional satisfaction of knocking the losing side down a peg is the same as one gets from celebrity tabloid magazines, only the reader can justify it to themselves as being educational. The internet has certainly raised an entire generation of precocious teenagers into skeptical, rational atheist adults by filling this market demand for combative entertainment in this way. The result today is that everything being up for debate and clickbait titles abound promising to show ideas being “destroyed” or “wrecked” as though science and learning was a tournament in some bloody spectator sport. Two memes enter; one meme leaves.

To be a dubunking, the argument being addressed must be meticulously torn apart and demolished. It takes a lot of work, requiring expertise and methodology and lots of citations. The whole point of a debunking is to be final; to be more than just a counter-argument but an absolute routing. While many topics are not so cut-and-dry to allow a concrete right and wrong opinion, such as philosophical questions regarding consciousness, you can rest-assured that all of the low-hanging fruit has been picked clean. Every poor argument ever made against the theory of evolution has been pulverized in internet court so many times that when I encounter them one in the wild I have to check my shock. How could anyone still believe that? Have they been living under a rock (or have I)? By consequence, the opinion columns newspapers and new media outfits try to pass-off as debunkings are a disgrace to the name.

Talking like an Expert

The thing about internet discussions is that they between individuals and small groups of individuals out of millions who are brought together in nearly-infinite combinations. Thus the same argument occurs again and again and again with different people. If none of the participants experience the deja vu of having already seen this argument play out then perhaps something novel will happen. But usually whoever has already seen this argument, and thus already knows who wins or loses, has the upper hand. They can go for points on style, deciding how they will deploy the winning argument — perhaps as a humble conveyer of knowledge or as a sick burn. Or maybe they can anticipate counter-arguments and guide their interlocutor into a trap, or know when to tip the board, move the goalposts, and avoid getting caught.

Eventually, having lurked on the internet long enough, anyone can pick up expert knowledge and develop an authoritative voice on subjects which they are not directly studied in. I’m sure it’s like those doctors with fake degrees; they are passable and people seldom test them or question the depth of their knowledge. It’s a sort of imposter intellectualism, since one is basically just reciting lines and talking points as though one is playing a role instead of having formulated one’s opinions from education in the concepts discussed. It’s about acting knowledgeable and sounding smart than having knowledge and being smart. On the internet nearly anyone can act like an expert on anything, and it’s hard to know what’s wrong with that when they actually are correct. And one can also play devil’s advocate to many sides, already having seen the talking points come up so often. What innovations do occur, they are not so often balanced syntheses which progress the arguments in good will, but semantic shifts which lead to reinterpretations of the arguments into strawman positions and specious ad-hominem attacks against the people who wield them.

Creative Communities

For all these reasons, the healthiest parts of the internet are the ones where people are not merely talking or discussing or reviewing or critiquing or commenting on events or art or ideas. They are the communities where people are creating things. Where the discussions involve the planning and deliberation and constructing of steps to achieve a goal which everyone present desires and is working toward. In these environments people have more to contribute than just their opinions or facts uttered in
order to prove a point. There is something relevant to be discussed for it’s merits. Of course, there are always fans or viewers or users or future-owners who may be hard to please, but creators know that what they accomplish will speak for itself and its value will be self-evident to those who appreciate it. I’ve been part of fan-film communities, art communities, and Free Software communities as a cheer-leader, fund-raiser, bug tester, and sometimes contributor. All of these communities have milestones and goals and setbacks and accomplishments — in short there is a story to the common discussion. It’s not the story of a flamewar, or a some attention-grabber causing drama — it’s rising action of a journey in which all involved are invested, have stakes in, and share a common bond around. If you’re going to spend a lot of time on the internet, then be sure to be part of something creative, above and beyond mere discussion forums and comment sections. Of all the rewards it might reap, a renewed faith in cyberspace as a tool to for bringing people together in common humanity is the most valuable.

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