Monday, December 12, 2005

 

The Internet is a Strange World

I fell in love with the Internet pretty quickly. I've found each evolution so interesting -- message boards, news sites, e-commerce and blogs. And let me tell you -- it really is a world.

There are a few great gossip sites which have developed over the past year or so. In fact, these gossip sites are so good, traditional magazines have been forced to start to credit blogs as sources, and I have read some articles which state that people are cancelling their subscriptions to gossip rags like US Weekly and In Touch because the blogs deliver the news faster (certainly this is how I get my gossip). Blogs can also analyze the reason behind the headline on a magazine, giving readers a sense of the "drama" that goes into planning a news story. You don't have to live in New York anymore to hear the buzz. ;-) (This is true of news blogs, by the way. Japundit wrote about racist manga months before the New York Times covered the story).

So, I've been sort of captivated this year by watching PerezHilton develop his blog. There was drama earlier this year when Perez initially named his site PageSixSixSix as an homage to the famous Page Six gossip column. He changed his name once PageSix threatened him with legal action.

Now, all good gossip columnists have their favorites. Lainey, for example, is of Chinese descent and I can count on her to let me know if there is a decent Asian actress on the horizon. She has her favorites -- Gwyneth Paltrow -- and her not-so-favorites -- Jennifer Aniston. Perez is a little less biased. But his message board has been bombarded over the past few months by someone spewing racial epithets and "supporting" the cause of Jennifer Aniston. (As an aside, there is even "Team Aniston" and "Team Jolie" merchandise for sale for people who care about these things, and think that siding with a celebrity in a divorce is important).

The "spam" became so bad that Perez posted the ISP numbers of the spammer filling his message boards "with hate," as they say. And lo and behold, he found out that physical address, name and phone number of the spammer. And he posted it on his message board. The ensuing discussion can be read here. As it turns out, the spammer runs a fellow celebrity gossip site -- perhaps this is all the result of professional rivalry? After all, Perez has managed to turn an online gossip blog into being on a first name basis with Paris Hilton et al.

There is just so much to say about this. For as goes gossip, so goes the rest of the world.

First of all, what are the issues of privacy here? Perez posting the spammer's name appears to be legal. What are we to make of all the angry readers of Perez's blog who are thrilled that the spammer has been caught and are now calling the spammer's home? What are we to make of the spammer taking it upon himself to spend hours and hours posting ridiculous and insulting garbage on a gossip site? What is to become of true privacy?

Second, I love how the Internet has democratized information. I understand that there are pros and cons here. I really do. But how amazing was it during the election to track the electoral college, and to track in real time who was probably going to win the election (though the election definitely didn't go the way I wanted it to).

I haven't been to pleased with the mainstream press lately. On the face of it, I support the idea of an enlightened editor pushing his writers to report on and tell the truth and act as the check on the federal government that the media is supposed to be. But I sort of feel like the media has fallen down -- and keeps falling down -- on the job. Blogs are giving us a much richer picture of what is actually happening in the world -- even if you don't agree with everything that is being said. And if it means that someone like Perez can leverage a lot of hard work to become a gossip maven without having to trawl through the politics of a traditional news machine, well then great!

Those who have known me for a while know that I had a baptism in the Internet world in late 1999 and the early part of this century. I worked at Blades and Bolt, and while both experiences were exhausting, they were fascinating and the issues we dealt with are still very much the issues that matter to the Internet. At Bolt, Jane Mount used to tell us that research made it pretty clear that Internet uses are more honest about who they are online than in the real world. This actually makes sense to me. There is this strange mix of anonymity and openness about the web. Jane also used to talk about a book called Snow Crash, which I have read, and which she and then CEO Dan Pelson really captured the possibility and spirit of the Internet. I have my issues with the book, but I take their point.

Certainly I've had the experience of expression an emotion I was feeling at one particular moment and hitting the "Submit" button only to regret it later. In this way, the Intenet contains some very raw emotional spewing. Plus, as the New York Times has told us, the Internet can also be very, very addictive. You feel as though you are communing with hundreds of like-minded people. The mode of communication is text. If you are at all shy, the Internet is kind of comforting -- you don't feel put off by a dozen people laughing at stupid jokes at a party who seem to have a stranglehold on how to be cool. In the Internet world, you just chat.

Of course, online gaming fosters a similar kind of community with the added benefit that you are in a fictional world where you can accomplish great heroic acts. Once upon a time, fantasies took place just inside one person's mind -- or in the reader's relationship to a book. Now, fantasies have a place to run wild, so to speak, and people form strong emotional bonds within these communities.

On the political front, it means that someone like Josh Marshall with his muckraking undraiser or DailyKos can marshall forces -- no pun intended. This strikes me as a very good thing in the long run. It's a brave new world out there. What's going to happen? People who have always been prone to engaging the fictional and/or imaginary world -- lovers of Star Trek and speculative fiction -- will probably the first to fully "get" what this new world means. Ignore the 'net at your peril.

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