Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The ups and downs of internet notoriety

Recently, a friend and listener to my show wrote a post on her blog that brought her a tremendous amount of unexpected internet fame. Her eleven year old daughter wrote an excellent, thoughtful essay about her teacher who assumed that everyone celebrates Christmas. On The Non-Prophets, Matt Dillahunty thought "Possum Momma"s post with the essay was so good that he should read it on the air.

Once we had read the post, the exposure of this post widened, and one of our listeners happened to be a fundamentalist minister named William, who also lived in Possum Momma's area. I do not know why William listens to our show, as I have heard from very few Christians tuning in regularly.

In any case, several people dived in and started arguing with William, since that's what we like doing. Word spread, and to make a long story short, Possum Momma was linked by a number of popular blogs including Brent Rasmussen and Pharyngula, and now she has hundreds of replies. And from what I hear, she's not really all that excited about it.

Not that I can blame her. William called her a vile, filthy person, which is not that unusual among his ilk. It wasn't only William, however, but many of the other newcomers who are nominally on her side. On many sites, Possum Momma has been all but called a liar by people who believe that no eleven year old can possibly write that well. They accuse her of fabricating the essay. One individual claimed that the daughter was an "a-hole", a pessimist, and a whining complainer. And many more people have showed up simply to argue with each other.

Who needs it? When I got interested in web page creation in 1996, one of the first pages I created was a site that was critical of Amway. I wrote it to chronicle an experience I'd had, and I never expected it to get much attention. Yet when it showed up on search engines I started receiving replies, first in a slow trickle, then in a huge torrent. Some of them, quite frankly, either shocked or depressed me. Apparently since I didn't think that an Amway starter kit was a smart way to spend your money, I was a pathetic loser, a terminal failure, a guy who would never succeed in life and die poor and alone.

That was the first time I noticed a truism about the blossoming internet, namely that every single time you open your mouth and say anything more controversial than "I love to pet puppies," a very large swath of people will despise you and everything you stand for. Wait a minute, scratch that. On second thought, "I love to pet puppies" will probably yield the same result.

Now, some people realize this and decide that the fact that they are being criticized proves that they are right. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sometimes people criticize your opinions because your opinions are, speaking accurately, stupid. But that is not always (or perhaps even usually) the case, and the fact is that you can't use people's anger as a benchmark for how well you're doing. That's why many of us think that things like evidence are important.

The internet has become the world's most powerful tool for channeling a shared emotion at an idea. If a few people are angry with you, then they can all tell all their friends, who will tell all THEIR friends, and so on until you have not one but hundreds of people angry with you. And that sucks. That's the dark side of the internet.

But there are great positives at work as well, and they are the flip side of this anger. The internet is also a powerful tool for channeling good emotions like "support" and "community" and "confidence." On Pharyngula, for example, I see this post by Allison:

PZ, thanks for these links! After my recent outing-of-self, I'm still looking for connections with others of my age and point in life (young adult, with youngish kids) who share my belief in freedom of thought.

Skatje [PZ Myers' daughter] had already been inspirational to me, and now I'm beyong impressed with Possom #1's reasoning skills. Oh, how I wish it hadn't taken me until my mid-20s to start the process of deprogramming from my fundie upbringing!

Similarly, when my father does his high school presentations year after year, he regularly hears from a few kids who say things like "Until you spoke, I had no idea that there were other people in the world who thought like me." The Non-Prophets gets listeners from all over the world, including quite a few who are closeted in Bible Belt areas and do not know any other atheists. As a son of atheists, with a great community of atheists as many of my friends, I've had an easy and mostly persecution-free time with my lifelong atheism. I know that this is atypical, and therefore it is uplifting to hear from these people who are so hungry for a connection, someone to talk to, who won't dismiss them as evil heretics because they don't believe in invisible friends.

Mark Twain supposedly* once wrote: "A lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes." Mark Twain would probably have loved the internet. It is, admittedly, the fastest conduit for spreading lies that the world has ever known. However, it is at the same time the fastest conduit for countering those same lies. It completely levels the playing field in such a way that "The News" is no longer defined by what a few large corporations think is worthy of attention, but by what ANYBODY can write, filtered by what people find interesting and worth reading.

It is because of this change that Possum Momma has received her unrequested attention. It is because of sites like Digg and Reddit, whose inhabitants declared "This is a great story that deserves a lot of attention," and the internet made it so.

I know it's uncomfortable, to be shoved in the spotlight this way, but in a way it's a very exciting new world we're dealing with. People are becoming more and more interconnected, ideas are being explored in all kinds of rapid new ways from the free associations that thrive on the web. It's a fun thing to be a part of, and it's something that will shape the future of humanity.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for that reality check, Russel. Possum1 and I read it together and it really helped her put this in perspective. I guess I should clarify one thing that you said: I wasn't really "uncomfortable" with the things people were saying. I was just shocked that people cared so much. I was concerned that I had potentially exposed my daughter's thoughts for criticism and all that that might bring. However, it actually turned into a really good experience for our entire family. It highlighted something that my husband and I have been saying to our children for years: words are powerful. "The pen is mightier than the sword." After all was said and done, those with poor rationalization or evidence faultered. Those who acted like jerks were called on it. Those who remained civil and rational created an enlightening level of discource. And, THAT is...just really cool!! :)

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  2. atheist in a mini van,

    I didn't post anything at your blog, mainly because it looked like it would be quickly buried by the bickering, but as one of the atheists from the Bible Belt that Russell mentioned, I'd like to say thanks for the post, and thanks for raising your daughter to be open minded. It took me until I was almost 20 to come even close to that.

    Russell,

    You're comments about the internet amused me, because the first thing I ever read by you was your analysis of Operation: Mindcrime, about a year and a half before I discovered the Non Prophets. It took me a few months to make the connection. One of several "small world" situations I've found myself in within the past year.

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  3. I think this is a really good response to the entire situation. Kudos on the thought that you've given this.

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