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Fear of internet culture is media moral panic of old

October 2, 2013

There internet thingamybob, which as we all know is very new and scary. It’s almost as if we’re living in a different time period entirely to when you used dial-up to connect to the web via the phone lines, the days where I’m sure people just thought of the internet as being this potentially useful, space age but slightly eccentric curiosity that would mostly be used by accountants, as opposed to teenagers with itchy fingers.

Of course there has always been hysteria about the new. We’re a bit quick to brand things we don’t understand as witchcraft. This has decreased insomuch as, to be honest, no one really understands how a modern computer works in its entirety – people know bits and pieces, but are still stumped when problems arise. The tech has become more advanced than its constituent parts, and certainly its creators. Yet, we still flock to the comps like seagulls on mouldy ham sandwiches.

As unnerving as computers might be in a blown-out-of-proportion, killer-machines-are-coming-to-eat-us kind of way, it’s worth remembering that the internet is only a group of people… Albeit a very large group. It’s a community of the world. That means, whatever your opinion of the internet is only an opinion of the world.

It’s pre-internet naivety that’s set us up for this age of mistrust, I think. Before you could connect with anyone anywhere and still retain your privacy (for what is anonymity if not privacy) you could not be fully aware of the scope of human experience. Yours was limited to what an establishment of people chose to show you, so you were subject to their bias. Now you can choose which bias you can have filtering your perception, which means you can pick one that substantiates your pre-existing ones, given to you by parents or a dodgy uncle.

A bit confusing, but ultimately it gives us, the public, a sense of control and frankly, the other media makers don’t much like it. They fear, rightly, that if you can pick and choose whatever entertainment or information you like from whatever source, their limited and selective input will become unpopular and obsolete. As such, it is very much in their best interest to slate the internet as an Evil Thing.

It’s been happening since the beginning of media. Print media wants to tell you that television rots your soul; radio did the same, and TV will tell you that radio is old fashioned and behind the times. TV hates the internet and internet hates TV and music unless it can rip them both off for free without being accused of copyright infringement, and even then no credit is given to the other industries, it’s just one-nil to the internet.

TV tolerates film grudgingly because it’s now incorporated, but film has nothing nice to say about TV – or video games, which is hilariously unsubtle in its reactionary slating of the Perils of The Idiot Box, resolutely ignoring the irony of the fact that most video games have to be funneled through an Idiot Box in order to be played. Music has nothing to say about any of them, because it lives in its own little bubble world where Love Is All You Need. All the other media forms have always hated video games, except the internet, which loves them, because it’s contrary that way.

Or rather, the internet is constructed by actual people with actual opinions, and people like video games. Therefore it logically follows that the internet is up for slating; those two evil mediums, polluting our lives and our children with war and pornography. Because television and film (and real life) have never had these things. And, of course, the internet is an external force like The Flying Spaghetti Monster, tap tap tapping away on our keyboards while we sleep.

I heard a woman on the radio the other day banging on and on about “memes” and “trolling” like Enid Blyton describing sexual positions. She seemed to think that trolling was synonymous with cyber-bullying, and was saying so as if this was fact. This rather incensed me because I was no doubt listening to BBC Radio 4, and they are not known for their young tech-savvy audience, so as likely as not the middle aged to old people listening to that would have believed every word she said. The problem is that she was dead wrong.

The word “trolling” was invented by trolls – by frequent users of the internet, used to its culture. It’s used jokingly, sometimes affectionately. It’s drifted into the real world. What kind of people would we be if that were true of cyber bullying? Quite apart from anything else, a complete half-wit would figure out that if “cyber-bullying” entered the physical realm, it would simply be “bullying”. We don’t have a culturally specific term for bullying, funnily enough.

Trolling is a word as steeped with nuance as any other in the English language, for the simple reason that, like almost every other word in the English language, it was naturally occurring and evolving. Generally put, trolling is a way of mocking, a way to provoke a reaction out of someone – often an overly sincere or earnest someone, who is inappropriately expressing an overly-political and morally questionable point – in order to expose the weakness in their line of thinking, whether it be emotional or logical.

That is one use of the word. Another might be: purposefully presenting an opinion (particularly a controversial one) that is not your own for the pleasure of observing people’s more extreme reactions. Another would be pretending to be stupid, or not to understand someone, in order to exasperate them. It might involve being purposefully off-topic in order to derail a conversation. At worst, it involves being blanketly, blatantly and absurdly rude… To what end is anyone’s guess.

No doubt all of this is very immature. However, what it is usually not is merely mean-spirited, but rather a way of routing out people who the troll perceives as not belonging there. For example “newfag” is a term for those who are new to a forum or image board such as 4chan, and if you ignore the homophobic implication – which, honestly, is highly unlikely to be intended on 4chan, of all places – is obviously a derogatory term for anyone who has committed the offence of showing their inexperience with forum and online culture, which comes with a set of both written and unwritten rules that newbies all too frequently fail to heed. Trolling is, in this context, more cyber-strict-parent-giving-you-a-good-lesson-in-the-ways-of-the-world than cyber-bullying.

Much as people dislike this, bear in mind the tendency to get over emotional online is the surest way to identify yourself as being a newbie in the first place. It is always important to establish yours peers and the internet is no different, so has a culture based around etiquette just as complex as any to be found in the physical realm. Just like how parking within a five-mile radius of Buckingham Palace does not make you the Queen, looking up the definition of “troll” on the internet does not make you a seasoned internet user (or indeed, a journalist, BBC Radio 4). People who spend a lot of time on Youtube or 4chan will be aware of memes and trolling as second nature. Perhaps they are so familiar with them, they will not recognise my attempts to define them because they will have their own ideas about the matter.

In any case, the internet needs to be self-regulating, because even the moderators of sites like 4chan are not professional referees, but rather the very human creators of the site or elevated (and sometimes quite highly strung) ordinary users of the site, who have become veterans from simple overuse. It’s easy to get a sense of self-importance out of it, knowing there is no official governing body. Despite its faults, attempts to regulate the internet are met with wide scale outcry – remember the Wikipedia blackout?

This is simply because, despite often being a shrieky, farcical, comical, cluttered place, the internet is made up of everyone and their individual differences, and wherever you come from you can easily graduate to a position of relative (if undefined) status by simply heeding the implicit rules. It’s a fast moving, and therefore easy-to-pick-up, process. It’s not a glamorous thing, the internet. It’s weird because people are weird. In effect, it remembers what television has possibly forgotten; that people are faulted, and it’s a good thing.

This makes it a much more universal medium than pop music, which makes everyone out to be these glittery, floaty people who’ve never had money before so don’t understand that’s it’s supposed to be for food, not clothes, trinkets and drugs; and reality television, which is made entirely by people who were born into money, understand money and thus do not understand anyone who doesn’t understand money, reaching down to them with patronising programs that attempt to reflect the working classes back at themselves by representing only the dregs of society – people with the outlook of the most intolerable of musicians but with none the the talent.

While TV is hastily trying to assimilate music, newspapers try to assimilate TV and translate all that breathy excitement into print media that yells at you in big red font. In turn, TV copies tabloids back and Channel 5 news takes on a hysterical edge. Meanwhile, if you switch to the lesser known Freeview channels, you can find people like Mr T. showing you endless streams of Youtube videos.

TV is hypocritical that way – it hasn’t a good word to say about the internet, but it still takes footage directly from it and broadcasts it in that linear, dull and completely inappropriate way that simply isn’t a feature of internet viewing, which tends to be erratic and sporadic, based entirely on the preferences of the individual viewer rather than based around a set theme that might appeal to a mass audience. TV would also copy video games but no one copies video games because it’s more or less impossible and all attempts to do so have flopped drastically. It is an amazingly unique medium that doesn’t take well to copying films any better than films take to copying it.

Strangely, it’s talk radio that assimilates the internet the most; it plays to a wide audience but has a specific one. Woman’s Hour, while perfectly acceptable to 21st century men, does not do much in the way of appeal for the more conservative working classes. Radio never really transcends its boundary, rather hanging on to its class-based entertainment, be it working or middle, since that is the only social distinction currently allowed – radio probably fears, as I do, the inevitable day when class, like race, sexuality, gender and age, becomes so ridiculously taboo you can make no comparisons whatsoever, so is desperately clinging on to the only identity it is still permitted.

Again, internet doesn’t really have that problem. It doesn’t have to pretend to be universal – it is universal, and if that means widespread and non-PC mockery, so be it. No one cares what age you are (provided you are not 12, an oddly specific age that tends inexplicably to irritate people) or how much money you have, nor can anyone see what colour you are or your gender, which makes it impossible to presume any particular sexuality.

In fact, mentioning any of this is likely to lead you to a good solid trolling – the users of 4chan virulently defend the user’s duty (not right, duty) to be anonymous and not call themselves anything that vaguely resembles a real name. What is considered important is that you engage. Moreover, it brings into popularity groups that have always been marginalised; let’s face it, video gamers have always been mainly nerds and nerds have created our internet.

If there’s a prominent group at all, it’s the nerds; hence the endless circulation of memes which are not only questionable in their humour but totally obscure. I should know, I make enough of them myself. There only use is to identify your kindred, and so are built around figureheads from pop-culture and exaggerated in order to express an idea. I know that if I say “Keanu Reeves” to my best friend’s sister, the regular Jo that she is, she will know who I mean. If I say “Sad Keanu…”, she will look at me like I’m a lunatic. Not that she needs much excuse. It’s such a simple thing, yet marks a clear distinction.

It’s this cultural set up, and its universality, plus the fact it is driven by the public not the educate, the absurdly talented, the posing or the purely lucky, that will be its driving force. If you want proof that this is the case, you need look no further than your average vlogger – a video log usually consists of an ordinary looking and slightly awkward someone talking about their various mishaps and misgivings to a bog-standard camera. A good vlogger can expect upwards of six million regular viewers, as often as they broadcast – usually weekly. As a new medium it is a work in progress, but it is one I think people will embrace purely because it can incorporate literally every other media form with ease – including poor old video games – it only takes a nerd, a wish, and a computer.

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