It is commonly said—but I believe it anyway—that the Internet is glutted with individuals who produce an unceasing and meaningless din: crackpots who are madly typ-typ-typing into the night, keyboard commanders run amok.
This is true. The Internet is thick with people who regularly blur the line between writing and spamming.
But buried diamondlike within this whorl of wire are the rare exceptions: a handful of people who distinguish themselves by the originality of their vision and by the zeal with which they hurl it into cyberspace.
I'm talking about people like the Frenchman, now living in southern California, who captions the erotic photoplays on his website in a misspelled and mangled English, producing gems of dialogue such as
A little enthousiasm could do marvel around here!
I'm talking about people like the Michigan bed-and-breakfast owner whose ad assures us,
Everything is garnished.
I'm talking about people like the movie reviewer on a Christian site whose review of the South Park movie catalogues various "examples of ignominy in this celluloid developed in the fiery pits of hell," including the scene in which "an all-male chorus line wore pink bikini briefs," and the fact that the Lord's name was taken in vain seventeen times, and, perhaps most upsetting, that
Angels were portrayed as nude-very nude-females.Chapter 2
If you want to avail yourself of a strange vantage point on American culture, you could do worse than to turn to the site Anger Central [www.angry.net]. Anger Central is a collection of shortish screeds and diatribes sent in by random plaintiffs and organized alphabetically by topic.
Here is invective, regularly spaced. Here are troubled minds unburdened by tact or grammar (these troubled minds are nude-very nude).
Sometimes, when I am having a kind of slow day-one of those days when I find myself devoting a loosely measured amount of time to determining my body weight on Mars (60.3 pounds)-I will scroll through Anger Central and see what people are angry about. I'll while away an hour or so, intrigued by the fact that people get just as worked up over very tiny sources of outrage (e.g., potted meats) as they do over large ones (e.g., the Catholic Church). Under the category "Things," for instance, I'll find rants with titles such as
Being laid off
Cable company, Tucson
Nuts and Raisins
And then I'll buzz through some of the listings under the heading "People," intrigued by what I find there:
Two faced Back Stabbing Bitch
Non-confrontational bitch on the bus
Bitch sister in law
Happy Bubbly Bitch
KB the thieving bitch
lying sons of bitches
Marla the BITCH
While reading the rants themselves can soon enough go stale-a lot of these people wish they could get on afternoon television-imagining what kind of person wrote each one is reliably involving.
Also, I find I have questions. Did the person who wrote the rant entitled "my cousin the navel flaunter" also write "needy masseuse"? And in the self-interested, nonutilitarian stance taken by the person who posted "Jeremy Bentham," do I detect the literary stylings of "Happy Bubbly Bitch" herself?
As it turns out, my questions will never be answered: all the posts on Anger Central are unsigned.
Indeed, the Internet often poses the question of authorship. Sometimes the item in question is unsigned; other times it has more than one author-such as the unnamed graduate students who write Plotbyte's dumbed-down answer to Cliffs Notes [www.schoolbytes.com], like this one for Wuthering Heights:
Nobody knows how Emily Bronte wrote all this because she was really reclusive and never really dated or had any friends. This book is so confusing because everyone is somehow related to everyone else. It is like a backwoods trailer community. You know, where everybody is "cousins."
But usually the reason why we don't know the identity of the person we're reading on the Web is, of course, a function of the medium itself: the anonymity of being online precludes our knowing. On the Internet, most of us use a "handle" that is not our own name.
Moreover, some people, under the guise of their handle, are pretending to be someone they're not. One of the first lessons we learn when we go online is this: the presence in a chat room of more than one person identifying himself as a "teenage lesbian" is a strong if not certain indication that, in fact, there are no teenage lesbians currently chatting there.
But this tradition of dissembling points up an essential aspect of online culture: anyone who has ever worn a Halloween mask or made a prank phone call knows that, with your actual identity masked, you can-and sometimes will-do things that you otherwise might not. You're more daring, more likely to utter "Cowabunga!," more likely to lead a fully-clothed conga line into the swimming pool of the unknown.
Granted, people operating under false identities occupy a small portion of Web traffic. But I submit that the oftentimes raw quality of what we encounter online owes something to this lowering of accountability. Left alone in his parents' house while they are away, man cooks up a slightly exaggerated version of himself.
The Internet has opened a floodgate. About a year ago I noticed that whenever the people in my life needed to convey a message forged in passion-a rebuke to a slight I had dealt them, the recounting of something that had made them laugh, the unveiling of amorous feelings—they tended to e-mail me rather than write a letter or call me or tell me in person.
Increasingly, I pursue this line of action, too. If I had to, say, chastise you-and let me simply state right here, Reader, that as of page 8, I am already feeling a lot of hostility toward you-I would be tempted to convey this criticism electronically.
For several reasons.
First, of course, I hate it when you yell in my ear.
Second, when I communicate with you electronically, I am not Henry Alford, an actual breathing freelance writer who lives in New York City, where he tries to reconcile the gap between precipitously steep mortgage payments and the writing of "humorous" volumes yielding less-than-Grisham sales. No, I am Hankalf, an abstraction. No, I am Hankalf-carefree, frisky, unmortgaged: a scamp!
Third, the medium itself is the ultimate in McLuhanesque cool; if face-to-face communications are the most direct route at my disposal, then screen-to-screen ones are the most remote. From the stronghold of this remoteness, I will rocket at you my poisoned arrow.
If a lowering of accountability removes the filters from our e-mails by allowing us to present ourselves to the world with fewer restrictions, then the concept that media critics call "disintermediation" opens the valve of websites and Web commerce. Disintermediation is the removal of middle management-editors, publishers, agents, brokers, copy editors-who have historically acted as intermediaries between writers/producers and their readers/consumers. (The economic ramifications of this movement, of course, are huge. I pity the travel agents and small-bookstore owners and merchants who grow less relevant in the face of the techno-behemoth; in the future, only the very, very rich or the very, very poor will ever lay eyes on a human member of the service industry.)
Disintermediation is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because more people are given an opportunity to showcase their goods in the marketplace; a curse because many of these goods are starting to attract fruit flies.
Excerpted from Out There by Henry Alford. Copyright © 2001 by Henry Alford. Excerpted by permission of AtRandom, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.