The first panel I was on at SkepchickCon/CONvergence this weekend was “Growing Up Online”. I’m a little old to have really grown up on the internet, but I participated in the transition to online life as soon as that was a reasonable (as opposed to unweildly techy) thing to do.
As such, one of the things that amuses me in dealing with people who have grown up online is the way they think they’ve invented so many pieces of online life. I had the silliness of that assumption pointed out to me many times this weekend.
On the panel itself, Barbara Burke, who teaches a course at U of M Morris talked about underground media. We now find sort of thing we now find all over the web, from blogs to Facebook to this or that service that allows you to post something a bit longer than a tweet. Barbara mentioned that this grew out of the print ‘zine scene, but that it dates back as far as the 1740s, when the cost of printing became low enough that pamphleteering became a “thing”.
She dated flame wars to about the same time, and I noted that no one in the F&SF community should ever be surprised to see a flame war or see big names participating in them. My friend Lynne Thomas (a guest of honor at last year’s CONvergence) archives the papers of several F&SF authors at Northen Illinois University. A quick look into the magazines will disabuse you of the notion that these sorts of public battles arose with the internet.
They will also tell you that women being leery of elevators or harassment from big names at cons is nothing new. Isaac Asimov’s butt-pinching predilections were well-known in the day. They were also fondly tolerated–by men whose butts were, of course, inviolate.
After the panel, I had a nice chat with walking viral meme Ted Davis. Not being online means that you may not have heard of him, as the internet can spread memes further, but if you participated in Renaissance fairs at the right time, you probably ran into Ted…or someone saying they were Ted. You probably ate at a restaurant with a reservation in Ted’s name. You might have even owned a button saying you were Ted Davis or a t-shirt proclaiming Ted to be the father of your child. (Several women showed up to Ted’s wedding reception wearing these shirts with pillows tucked under them. Luckily, Ted’s new father-in-law, the minister who performed their ceremony, had a good sense of humor.)
All because a few actors at these fairs decided they needed a name to use when they were doing something they didn’t want traced back to them. Also because they didn’t care that someone was already using that name. Or maybe that was part of the fun. After all, the first time Ted traveled to Arizona, one of his “friends” arranged for a six-months-pregnant woman to be waiting at the airport with Ted’s name on a sign.
Even some of the uglier parts of the internet started well offline. Before the trolling panel, I was talking with Tim Wick, an old college friend and our programming liaison for SkepchickCon. Tim also does our local Renaissance Festival, and for the last couple of decades, he’s run Vilification Tennis (VilTen for short).
Vilification Tennis, which performed at CONvergence, could give /b/ a run for its money for content. It’s a performance gig in which two teams hurl insults at each other. Points are awarded for cleverness or disgustingness or timeliness, but they’re not kept close track of. The insults are the point.
Tim was talking about the themed show they did that specifically used ableist insults. (Other themes have included religion, politics, race, sex, etc.) Tim mentioned that he had received pushback from people feeling triggered by the word “retard” in the advertising.
Sound familiar? Now here’s where things differ from /b/ and other internet cesspools. Tim agreed completely with the people who had the complaint. He told them that they were absolutely right to object to the word.
However, he still didn’t declare the word off-limits. Why? Because absolutely nothing VilTen does is any more okay than using that word. The only redeeming social value the show has is that the people involved (including their sign language interpreters) are all volunteers who are friends with each other. Those insults are delivered in a situation where the insulted aren’t harmed by them.
The people who hear them still can be, of course, but Tim and crew try very hard to warn everyone what they’re getting into and to create a space in which it’s understood that no one means any of what is said. That makes it an improvement over /b/, even if the content is the same. And the differences are due to the care of the VilTen crew, not any kind of internet innovation.
So in case you ever ask why I laugh at you when you tell me that life online is somehow unique, don’t be surprised if my answer is just to tell you you don’t understand geek culture. Though I might also tell you to get out more.