DON’T WORRY! OPTIMISM/TO A PUP/THAT’S OKAY!

I believe I have come up with a theory that may explain various forms of Web snobbery, i.e., why different “communities” on the Web hate each other and talk at cross purposes to one another. Conversations that seem to be disagreements about how the Web should work are not conversations at all. They are, in truth, a sequence of alternating monologues about the one and only way either side believes the Web does work. And neither side can really hear what the other is saying.

Let’s start with some examples.

  1. If you run a real blog, you probably think LiveJournalers are a complete joke from start to finish. You wonder why anybody but bobbysoxers would use that service – and why anybody would even want to read bobbysoxers in the first place. You think LiveJournal is a place where little people with little lives can “friend” each other in peace and quiet, unsullied by people who know what they’re doing and are going somewhere. You think that any “journal” system that hews toward flat recitation of what people did that day, often ending with the blandishment “Yay me,” is almost completely worthless. You only say “almost completely worthless” to be polite; deep down you think it is worthless, period. You think there is no need for LiveJournal because there is no need for LiveJournalers to write what they do. There is no need for LiveJournalers, you think. Who gives a shit about them?

  2. But you also look down on people who run blogs on free hosting services, particularly Blogspot, since you know it is a prime source of splogs. (You know what splogs are. You may even think “splogs” is a real and viable word.) You think that somebody who has enough taste and acumen not to sign up for LiveJournal should get with the program already and buy their own domain name and set up Blogger or Movable Type or (preferably) WordPress themselves. You’ll still read them and you’ll even add them to your RSS, and you might even concede that they are engaged in the same enterprise you are, albeit with a highly compromised URL and no guarantee of long-term ownership of what they create. But you think they are lesser people. Just by a smidge.

  3. Or you are a Macintosh supremacist and consider Windows users guilty until proven innocent. In fact, you consider them a lower form of life. You find it absolutely flabbergasting that people consider Wintel machines “computers,” and are boggled at the prospect that people are still using IE6 (or 5, or 5.5). You expect these people to have no taste whatsoever and to top-post all their E-mails in HTML. You expect it will be impossible to explain to them why any part of the foregoing is a problem for anybody, least of all themselves.

  4. Or you work in Web standards and consider yourself part of the super-elite of Web development. (Or you’re trying to claw your way into that elite.) You find yourself awash in outright contempt for outdated Web shops that not only use tables for layout and tag-soup HTML but know of no other way. You are unable to believe, at all, at any level, that these people get paid to maintain a complete ignorance of Web standards, up to and including your having to explain to them what valid HTML is.

  5. Or, to use a final example, you think that venture capitalists constitute an alien – indeed quintessentially American – infiltration into the pure genetic stock of the Web. You view VCs, and the writers at Canadian newspapers who cover and do business with them (often simultaneously, as in the case of conferences they jointly put on), as carpetbagging parasites and creeps. You have no illusions that the Web should be “nonprofit,” but you also don’t think that commercial Web sites are the only ones worth talking about. Nor do you think that the only way to talk about them is through a quasi-religious filter (What would Jesus do? maps to How can we monetize this?). You note, moreover, that these parasites and creeps are also Windows users who consider themselves hip for having “migrated” to Firefox six months ago.

If it seems like I am picking on people, I am. For the record, the examples I’ve listed do not represent a thought experiment with five different test subjects, although they certainly could. They represent me: I believe nearly every part of the foregoing. I am a five-way snob at the very least. And I sure as hell am not the only one.

You can julienne prejudices like these even more finely if you like. There are people who think instant messaging is beneath them. Some people think PDFs are a great way to publish press releases. Some philosophers hold that if you really have to have a free E-mail account, only losers choose Hotmail. You can come up with your own list. There’s always a list, because the Web itself wills into being a range of competing and incompatible philosophies.

The Web, or actually the Internet, is the natural home of petty factionalism like these. It’s intrinsic and inescapable. There is no such thing as “broadcasting” on the Internet; there is no mass taste or mass culture. Neighbouring households may all receive the same set of TV stations, but no two computers, not even computers sitting right next to each other, receive the same set of Web sites (or E-mails or instant messages or Bittorrent downloads or SETI requests).

You have no choice but to pursue your own interests at the expense of other people’s. You are not other people and you are not forced to watch the same TV channels they are. You have enough options to do what you want, so you do. You are compelled to engage your own freedom of choice. It is almost impossible for anyone to force you to do something you do not want. Hence, an Internet buzzword – “driving traffic” to your site – is misguided in the first place and offensive otherwise. You can’t drive us to do anything.

But another Internet buzzword actually makes sense: The Web is something that builds silos. By choice or by accident or because you’re too autistic to do anything else, you may remain in your silo unaware of others. Or you may be vaguely aware of what other people are doing. (You may even have heard of the latest Internet fad, like MySpace.) Or you may have gone out of your way to look at somebody else’s silo, then recoiled in disgust.

If you aren’t in the first category and are completely oblivious, you will know about other silos and your silo will always be better than theirs. Everybody else has their own Internet and you have yours. You are not interested in the wrong people’s Internets.

In some cases your silo really is better than theirs. Standards-compliant sites really are better, Macs really are better, top-posting really is wrong, VCs really are vipers. But when you say those things, you are not actually communicating. You stand next to no chance whatsoever to budge somebody from one silo to another.

On a really good day you can persuade a site to redesign with standards, or a Wintel user to buy a real machine. Mostly, though, what you are engaged in is a recitation of philosophy at best or dogma at worst. And whoever you’re talking to is probably completely incapable of even hearing what you’re saying, let alone listening to it. They have a kind of silo aphasia that prevents them from understanding what the hell you’re talking about.

I have been engaged in this failed dialectic since circa 2000, the NUblog era, when I railed against Dockers-wearing ad-executive wankers who were busy fucking up the Web. They still are, except now they don’t all wear Dockers and don’t all work in advertising. (They all got promoted.) I got nowhere at all not because of what I was saying or any manner in which I said it – these are constant accusations I face, by the way – but because my interlocutors were incapable of listening. And they still are. It is a natural outcome of the Internet tendency toward the niche.

I have been thinking about this for a while – funny how it takes six years for these things to become clear – and I have found exactly one way of breaking through the bubbles to get people to actually understand the silo I’m coming from. It involves variations of the following phrase: “If it sounds like I’m saying you’ve been doing this wrong all along, it’s because I am saying that. And here is why.” I find this cuts through the grease and displaces people from their silos long enough to actually listen to a factual explanation (e.g., about standards).

You may think the phrase is overly aggressive. (You probably think I’m overly aggressive when I walk up to you and say hello. One of your silos is your own latticework of misapprehensions about me.) But that is not how the phrase is greeted. After I say it, people begin to hear me for the first time and understand me. No other method I’ve tried has had any real success, but this one has. It is a way of getting through to the wrong people’s Internets.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2006.06.21 11:34. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:
http://blog.fawny.org/2006/06/21/wrong/

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