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Nothing New Over the Tubes

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.

Comments

  1. says

    Also see Tom Standage’s _The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the 19th Century’s On-Line Pioneers_.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    … it dates back as far as the 1740s, when the cost of printing became low enough that pamphleteering became a “thing”.

    She might do well to research a couple of centuries earlier, to the career of a notorious pamphleteer named Martin Luther, and his contemporary Paracelsus (both also accomplished flamers).

  3. machintelligence says

    Sigh… As a fan of Issac Asimov (although I never met him) I am saddened to hear this. He did write “The Sensuous Dirty Old Man” under the semi-pseudonym Dr. A. so I suppose it was to be expected.

  4. KT says

    John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had a pretty epic flame war when they were campaigning against each other. Some of the stuff they called each other would put the relatively uncreative jerks on the Internet to shame.

  5. Joey Maloney says

    Hmm, I’m a little young to have an informed opinion about the Good Doctor’s behavior – I was a tween whenever I encountered him or had a chance to observe him up close – but I have to say even then it seemed to me that his dirty old man act was just that, an act. I don’t know if I could have expressed this at the time, but in retrospect it’s pretty clear to me he was making fun of that guy, not being that guy. And the grown-up women I saw all seemed to be in on the joke.

    But like I say, I was pretty young so obviously I could have missed important nuance.

  6. Dunc says

    It’s a performance gig in which two teams hurl insults at each other.

    So it’s a team version of the ancient sport of flyting, only without the poetry? Amateurs.

  7. LeftSidePositive says

    I do have some issues with Vilification Tennis, though, and the whole idea that it’s okay to engage in sexism/racism/ableism/etc. if no one present will be hurt by it:

    The thing is, the harm from sexist/racist/ableist attitudes is not just that it hurts people’s feelings at a given moment. The harm is also that it entrenches toxic attitudes amongst the privileged, so by engaging in bashing people based on identities, even if consciously you know it’s “just a joke,” it reinforces the idea that those identities are really inferior and it’s just polite of us not to say so, and it also leads those privileged people to do callous things to marginalized groups when they leave that space where there’s no one there to be offended, often without realizing they’re doing it!.

    Now, this is not to say that those who play VilTen or tell racist jokes in a group of chill white people are then going to go out and explicitly repeat those words toward others…rather, the devaluing and dehumanizing attitudes they are reinforcing may seep into their subjective and subconscious heuristics about the world: they may be slightly more likely to overlook the contributions of a marginalized person on a project, to interrupt marginalized people more often, to feel uncomfortable around someone from a different group, to preferentially go to privileged people for collaboration, to think that of course they personally support Group X’s struggle for equality but view it as a legitimate political debate, to thoughtlessly devalue the marginalized person’s right to assess their own treatment and assure them that the harassment they get from others is “not that bad,” to project a condescending attitude toward marginalized people or mansplain, to forget to seek out the perspectives of marginalized persons when shaping policy, and on and on and on. And again, this is overwhelmingly without the people responsible realizing they’re doing it, which makes it all the more dangerous. People in my experience tend to be pretty bad at compartmentalizing these things.

    Moreover, I don’t see how marginalizing and identity-based insults necessarily make for a better game of VilTen or other banter…I think saying you have to eviscerate someone while being bigotry-free might actually be a spur to greater creativity!

  8. says

    You might like this story.

    Money quote: “Then there’s the stupid people with poorly-developed theory of mind who can’t connect the words they’re seeing on screen with a real living, breathing human being who might be reacting emotionally. You can always spot their people in an online argument. They’re the ones who justify their behaviour with “it’s not real, it’s only the internet” — as if your mother is suddenly not your mother when you phone her rather than joining her for Sunday lunch.”

  9. says

    From what I understand, Isaac Asimov was regularly unfaithful to his first wife at conferences, with the sympathetic connivance of SF fans who felt she didn’t understand him or some such slop. If he was lonely in his marriage [which we don't know--possibly he just felt it his right to 'score' at cons], it was his duty to say so and get out instead of using her as a convenient support system. I think his second, younger model wife had the sense to attend conferences with him but that is just my vague impression.

    I, too, was disappointed to find he was a user and a tramp.

  10. David K. M. Klaus says

    I have never heard of Mr. Davis, Mr. Wick, or “Vilification Tennis” as I am not a Renfest participant. I have however, seen online groups which ostensibly we set up to be similar in nature to the “VilTen” which degenerated into the verbal equivalent of beating the living shit out of someone with fists because one popular person had a genuine desire to hurt a new participant and everyone else went along, until it was no longer a game but a all-too-real punch-up of the bewildered victim by a mass of heretofore almost entirely strangers.

    If this has never happened in a “VilTen” game I can only presume that the people playing it are genuine saints, to not ever have abused someone to tears or consideration of suicide even once — because that’s what happened in the online community I mentioned above.

  11. David K. M. Klaus says

    Clarification: I typoed “were set up” as “we set up”, which changes the meaning of my sentence. I had no part is the setting up of the game, but was invited to join later.

  12. David K. M. Klaus says

    I came to the conclusion that the people in the online game were neither professionals nor decent human beings, and left.

    Based on that experience, I think such games are more dangerous than as described to newbies, but if your group was made up of people with enough empathy to not allow it to degenerate, you and they have my sincere congratulations.

  13. says

    Speaking as Mr. Wick (because I am), the important thing to remember is that what we are doing is a show. The people involved in the show are professional comedians and we all know that nothing that is said on stage should ever be construed as a personal attack. The common goal that we all share is a goal to entertain our audience.

    The audience isn’t entertained when the show gets personal. They are uncomfortable.

    Our show is over twenty years old and we’ve never had the issues you describe. It isn’t because we are saints – it’s because we are all professionals and we understand the difference between making fun of someone for comedy and making fun of someone to cause them pain.

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