The ‘True Image Of A Writer’ And Online Writing

Shortly after I first began writing on the ‘Net–way back in 1988–I noticed that there was, very often, a marked contrast between the online and offline personas of some of the writers I encountered online. (I am referring to a small subset of the writers I read online; these were folks who worked with me in campus research labs but also wrote actively on Usenet newsgroups.) One of the most stunning contrasts was provided by a pair of young men, who were both brilliant programmers, but also afflicted with terrible stutters. Conversations with them were invariably affairs requiring a great deal of patience on the part of their interlocutors; their stutters very frequently derailed their attempts to coherently communicate. (I had suffered from a stutter myself once, as pre-teen, so I instantly sympathized with them, even as I did my best to decipher their speech at times.)

This was not the case online. Both wrote brilliantly and voluminously online; they wrote long and short pieces; they wrote on politics and technical matters alike with style and verve; they possessed a caustic sense of humor and were not afraid to put it on display. Quite simply, they were different persons online. One of them met his future wife online; she wrote from South America; he from New Jersey; she fell in love with ‘him,’ with his online persona, and traveled to the US to meet him; when she met him in person and encountered his stutter for the first time, she–as she put it herself later–realized it was too late, because she had already fallen in love with him. The unpleasant converse of the situation I describe here is the internet troll, the keyboard warrior, who ‘talks big’ online, and uses the online forum as an outlet for his misanthropy and aggression–all the while being a singularly meek and timid and physically uninspiring person offline. The very anonymity that makes the troll possible is, of course, what lets the silenced and intimidated speak up online. Without exaggeration, my memory of these gentlemen, and of the many other instances I observed of shy and reticent folks finding their voices online, has informed my resistance to facile claims that traditional, in-class, face-to-face education is invariably superior to online education. Any modality of instruction that could provide a voice to the voiceless was doing something right.

In Moments of Reprieve: A Memoir of Auschwitz (Penguin, New York, 1986) Primo Levi writes:

Anyone who has the opportunity to compare the true image of a writer with what can be deduced from his writings knows how frequently they do not coincide. The delicate investigator of movements of the spirit, vibrant as an oscillating circuit, proves to be a pompous oaf, morbidly full of himself, greedy for money and adulation blind  to his neighbor’s suffering. The orgiastic and sumptuous poet, in Dionysiac communion with the universe, is an abstinent, abstemious little man, not by ascetic choice but by medical prescription.

The ‘true image of the writer’ is an ambiguous notion; online writing has made it just a little more so.

Note: I wonder if Levi had Nietzsche in mind in his second example above.

An Old Flame (No, Not That Kind)

Writing about the adversarial disputation styles present in academic philosophy reminded me of the time I lost my temper at someone who worked in the same department as me. (I don’t use the term ‘colleague’ advisedly. This dude was anything but.) Then, I was in the computer science department at Brooklyn College, and had for a long time been the subject of a series of personal attacks by a senior professor in the department. He made insulting remarks at department meetings about my research, my work on the curriculum committee, attacked me during my promotion interview, and of course, made many, many snide, offensive remarks over the departmental mailing list. (I was not alone in being his target; many other members of my department had been attacked by him as well.)

Finally, after he had yet another crude comment on the mailing list about my work, matters came to a head. I lost my temper and wrote back:

Ok, its been mildly diverting for a while. But I’ve tired of dealing with your sub-literate philistine self.

First, I don’t care what your middle name is. I made one up; you want me to be careful in how I address you? When all I am subjected to is more of the stinking piles of meshugna hodgepodge that is periodically deposited in my inbox?

Secondly, you bore me. You are excessively pompous, and your actions and pronouncements reek of a disturbing misanthropy. You are a legend in your own mind, and nowhere else. You pontificate excessively, lack basic reading skills and are constitutionally incapable of constructing an argument. You suffer under the delusion that your laughable savant-like talents actually have something to do with intelligence. You strut around, convinced that you make sense, while what you really should do is pay less attention to those voices in your head.

Thirdly, while I could take some time to construct a rebuttal of your useless ramblings, I’d rather spend some time insulting you in public. That’s what you like to do, so why don’t I just play along for a bit? But only as long as you don’t bore me excessively. When it gets to that point, I’ll have my SPAM filter mark your emails as SPAM and toss them in the trash where they belong. I like a little light amusement once in a while, and you occasionally provide it. Its cheap, low-brow entertainment. I think [senior professors] should be good for more than cheap entertainment but you have set your sights very low, so I should humor you for a bit before I go back to work. Its the least I can do for a ‘colleague’.

I used to flame self-deluded folks like you for fun back in the good ol’ Usenet days; if you want to join in and stick a bulls-eye on your forehead, be my guest. I miss the days of flaming Penn State undergrads who ran to post ramblings like yours five minutes after they had received their first BITNET accounts. But those guys could read at least, so flaming them was fun. With you, I’m not sure. Maybe you should go write a grant, schmooze with a grants program officer, or take a journal editor out for lunch. Or perhaps take a history lesson in computer science. One thing you do need is an education. In manners, first and foremost, but once you are done with that, I’ll send you a list of other subjects you need to catch up on. There’s a whole world out there. Try it sometime.

When you can construct a flame, get back to me, bring an asbestos suit, and I’ll get to work. But please, try to entertain me. If I am to be subjected to foolishness, I want to be entertained as well.  You’re a bit like Borat without the satire or irony. Or humor. Or entertainment value. In short, (stop me if you’ve heard this before), mostly, you just bore me.

Now, I command you: entertain me. Write an email that makes sense. Otherwise, run along. I’ve got serious research to do.

This might seem like fun. But it wasn’t. It was draining and dispiriting. I had been provoked, and I had fallen for it.

Won’t get fooled again.

Political Schooling Via The Usenet Newsgroup

As my post yesterday should have indicated, we are educated by a variety of modalities. A powerfully formative one for me was my exposure to Usenet newsgroups.

I discovered newsgroups in 1988, shortly after I began work as a research assistant with the Computerized Conferencing and Communications Center at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. I ‘worked’ long hours in our laboratory; email and newsgroups occupied much of that time (in between writing code, debugging code, and stepping out for coffee and cigarette breaks). I had arrived in the US from India in 1987,  a bachelor’s degree in hand; I considered myself well-read, but this inflated estimation of my edification was soon to be revised.

In the late eighties and the early nineties, Usenet newsgroups were largely populated by those with some form of university affiliation: faculty, students, staff, post-doctoral fellows. (Commercial affiliations were not unknown, but these were outnumbered by academic ones; the .edu address was most commonly visible.)  That demographic, unsurprisingly, voluble and prolific in its writing. (It is to the credit of the hacker community that so many of its members wrote often, and well, on newsgroups.)

The following hierarchy of newsgroups captures their eclectic and comprehensive nature:

  • comp.* — Discussion of computer-related topics
  • news.* — Discussion of Usenet itself
  • sci.* — Discussion of scientific subjects
  • rec.* — Discussion of recreational activities (e.g. games and hobbies)
  • soc.* — Socialising and discussion of social issues.
  • talk. * — Discussion of contentious issues such as religion and politics.
  • misc.* — Miscellaneous discussion—anything which does not fit in the other hierarchies.

I read a few of the .sci, .soc, .talk, and .rec groups on a daily basis. These were the time-sucks of their day; you could spend hours and hours, reading, responding, and engaging in flame wars. They were how you filled lunch and coffee breaks; they could make you stay up late at night, and log in frequently to see if new articles had shown up, to see if anyone had responded to your post.

It was here, in Usenet newsgroups, that I read many, many well-written, articulate, clearly argued and defended, points of view that I had never read before: free speech absolutism, the legalization of drugs, Palestinian self-determination, women’s reproductive rights, privacy rights, gay and lesbian rights, free software versus proprietary software, feminism, interpretations of the American constitution.  And many more. (I also spent a great deal of time reading and discussing cricket in the cricket newsgroup and the Grateful Dead in rec.music.gdead; ) When world-shaking events like the fall of Berlin Wall or Tiananmen  Square occurred on the world stage, they provoked corresponding discussions in the relevant groups. I read furious debates; refutations and counter-refutations; angry tirades; racist and xenophobic rants; calm, reasoned, erudite quasi-dissertations.

I had often entertained conventional views on or all some of these topics before I encountered newsgroups; very few of them survived their encounter with newsgroup discussions.  I read a great deal of revisionist history; I was offered many perspectives on world historical events that I had glibly thought I had understood  well. I had been complacent; I was no longer so. The sense of instability in my beliefs was alarming, but it was also exhilarating. I learned that seemingly air-tight arguments and refutations often contained fatal fallacies and weaknesses that could be exposed by close reading and careful attention to their logical and rhetorical form.

Some discussions were tedious, and many were repetitive, and later in the mid-nineties as the Internet bloomed and blossomed, I found the newsgroups less useful. I stopped reading them soon thereafter. But I never forgot those early readings–which produced in me a kind of ‘shock of the new.’

Many, many thanks are due to all those unnamed teachers of mine.