Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Toast To The Old Cowboys of the Net

In the 90's we had a second wild west: the internet. The internet was the new frontier. The trail had been blazed by the pioneers of the 80's, paving the way for an internet that was still wild and untamed yet worked well enough to be accessible. We flocked to this new wild west, some of us seeking a new start amidst the anonymity of the net, some seeking to have fun in a world of freedom.

That's the operative word for that time: freedom. Mainstream society was mostly ignoring the internet, so there wasn't any real strict system of governance in place, yet at the same time it wasn't total anarchy; you found out what was accepted by your community and you worked with it. There was a casual atmosphere, a lot of individuality, and a sense that people gave a shit.

Even our outcasts had a certain amount of charm to them. One of the outcasts we had back in my own old haunt was a guy named Dan Moore. Dan suffered from severe autism, so severe in fact it bordered on schizophrenia. He had no ability to differentiate fantasy from reality. All of his problems eventually lead to what almost become a civil war on the message board when he acted on one of his role-playing conflicts out of character and no one realized it wasn't real until it was too late.

While it doesn't feel right to call a genuinely mentally ill person an insulting term like "annoying" he was, at the least, very frustrating to deal with. And yet, I'd rather spend every day with him then the average denizen of TVTropes, 4Chan, Youtube, or really any place on the internet today.

Much like the old west, however, soon everyone started moving in. The common users just wanted to be a part of the "big new thing." Then there was the government, terrified by some of the bad things that happened on the net and determined to bring order to what they saw as a lawless land filled with bandits and psychopaths. Of course, there were also the corporations, determined to squeeze some money out of the internet. The small communities are now almost all gone, replaced by mega-sites and social networks like Youtube and Facebook. The individuality and casual atmosphere are both gone too, replaced by the drumbeat mantra of pseudo-civilized society: "Fit in. Follow. FIT IN."

Half of the internet became all Serious Business, strict rules, and prim and proper social conduct, walking the wire knowing one slip will have you ostracized as a "troll." The other half, either due to a misguided sense of "returning things to the way they were" or maybe just a good old fashioned lack of ethics, became the highwaymen of our new west, falling into memes and sadism.

Then there's the old cowboys of the net, like myself, who suddenly find there's no place for us anymore. Freedom, true freedom is a terrible, beautiful thing. It's a gift from God Himself, abjectly horrifying to those who've never known it, but to those of us who have seen it nothing else can ever hope to compare.

No comments: