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Header: Jess Anderson in Madison Wisconsin
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My Own Views of Soc.Motss
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I started posting to soc.motss in the summer of 1986. For the next eight years, I was, speaking only of the amount of the writing, the leading poster there. But my efforts have since waxed and waned, for various reasons.

Soc.motss has a number of very positive aspects, in my opinion. The most obvious one is that there is a lot to read, which boosts the chance that there will be something of value to any individual reader. But the sheer volume has a downside, too. With such a huge amount of traffic every day, it has become virtually impossible to keep up, so one is more or less forced to pick and choose, using a variety of techniques, none of them wholly satisfactory.

The variety of personalities, topics of interest, indeed of the whole set of reasons people participate makes it more likely there will be some real content of interest to a given reader in a significant fraction of the postings. But as elsewhere on all but the most tightly controlled newsgroups, the bullshit factor can get very high.

There are serious defects in the entire paradigm of Usenet, I think, at least where unmoderated participation is involved. There is a lot of asocial or even antisocial behavior. This is not seldom mistakenly identified as "flaming." It isn't. Flaming is using very direct, even ad hominem language to make one's point. It's saying "You're a jerk" or "eat my shorts" instead of "I didn't like that" or "that's completely incorrect." But in my opinion, people who say what they feel in colorful language are not being asocial -- at least they're expressing something that may be of interest.

The asocial element -- and it has increased dramatically over the last few years -- is more like subway graffiti, except without the art. It's making a display of oneself for no other reason than to be making a display. It's form without content. As for antisocial elements, also a growing trend, the main tendencies are unalloyed misogyny and sexist attitudes. Many regular posters find that extremely repellent and are likely to flame an offender's butt to a crisp very quickly.

There is, nevertheless, a great deal of substance to the entire enterprise. Many people put substantial thought into what they post. People who are confused or unhappy, for instance, usually can quickly find someone who will take the time to make a supportive and sensitive response. Though usually somewhat diluted by what I called the bullshit factor, political and social discussions of real merit often take place.

There also a lot of news to pass around, people keeping track of homophobic crusades and anti-LGB voter initiatives, current events and current media treatments of our issues, movies and television dramas with LGB content, and so forth. There is a nearly constant presence of coming-out stories, especially coming out to parents. Several regular posters are involved with PFLAG, the parent support and awareness group.

Not unique to soc.motss, there are fairly regular local, regional, and national gatherings, or "cons," when the names one knows only as glowing phosphors finally get linked up with the real person behind the screen. Usually these prove to be very intense and generally moving experiences. One makes friends, real friends, out of such things.

In my own experience, some of these relationships, whether accompanied by an in-person acquaintance or not, blossom into fairly profound friendships. Not everyone would agree that this is even possible, however. What's at issue there, I believe, is the degree to which one feels a kind of solidity in what are really only words. In my own case, words carry quite a lot of reality, so I find it easy to relate to people who speak my language, in the several senses of that phrase.

For a very long time, the level of my own participation there was equivalent to about 200 pages of typescript a month. Six or seven pages of postings each and every day, day in and day out, quickly adds up to a lot of writing. Cutting the amount down by about a third, to allow for included or cited texts, it still amounted to a large-scale effort.

More recently, I'm often too short on time to give it the kind of forethought I think it deserves, and I don't want to have my contribution consist only of the throw-away jokes and puns I like to sprinkle throughout a day's postings.

In addition, on at least two occasions, the general attitude pervading the newsgroup seemed so alien to my basic values that I took extended vacations -- the longest one was more than three months -- from participation there. Your own mileage may vary. There are barbarians in all walks of life, after all.

I'm unable to resist "pun threads," in which a series of posters will create an often hilarious cascade of plays on words. This does not always meet with favor; there are several regulars who regular sticks in the mud about it. I think that must be why they're stuck in the mud.

Give it a try, you might find something there. Newbies are usually quite timid, but if they're not sufficiently deferential they sometimes have reason to be timid, for the reaction can be swift and fairly rough. The more common thing is to start out a bit on the reckless side, which is sure to get your chain yanked very abruptly.

It would probably be foolish to suppose that a large group of separate people, dispersed over a wide geographical, intellectual, professional, and ethical landscape, could ever hope to achieve something amounting to real community among themselves. If it's a foolish, idealistic notion, than I must plead a degree of foolish idealism in the matter.

However, there are very real obstacles blocking any such realization. There is abroad, there as everywhere, a deeply troubling negative impulse, a meanness of spirit, a general unkindness and lack of sympathy for the plights of others. As far as I've ever been able to determine, the only antidote to such toxic influences is facing them down. It can be very wearying and very wearing, certainly not an undertaking for the faint of heart, because some of the atavists are extremely bright and articulate, quite capable of marshalling an ever-ready bevy of onlookers and sycophants into a jeering section. At times it's downright ugly in there.

One kind of antidote is humor; such antics are laughable at the same time that they are troublesome. Another is simply providing an alternative, a different kind of voice. Unfortunately, I tend to be too easily caught up in rhetorical flourishes myself, too easily angered or offended, to do well with that ploy. But I have been working on it, too, hoping to find a way to turn it to good account. One thing I'm fairly determined not to do is cede the terrain without a struggle. Finding the right balance between acceptance, acquiescence, and pitched battles is not so easy. Without getting outright messianic about it, I think it's something that needs doing. It does help to know that I'm not alone in that thought.

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