It’s a curious business. You’ve got these two nutters. One of them, let’s call him Rajiv, has culled some emails from a discussion list from which he’s been excluded for assorted ravings, and sends out plaintive missives couched in terms of eastern philosophy which no-one can understand. The second nutter, we’ll him Jack, receives one of his messages, and knowing something about eastern philosophy, takes it seriously and replies. One or two others complain to the discussion list which they mistake it as coming from, to which Nutter No.2 responds in terms that people on the list find pretty offensive (and it’s not the first time his interventions on this list have caused unhappiness either).
Seems to me this incident should be understood symptomatically. Nutter No.1 seems to be someone ‘in need of help’, as another recipient of the original missive puts it, distressed at ‘not being able to do anything about it’. One of the list moderators communicates off-list to say that it seems the fellow has been living for a number of years in a shelter for the homeless in Boston. This is interesting, firstly because it shows that in a fully wired-up society, even the most marginalised citizens are able to get access to the internet, and second because of how this marginalised subject uses this access: isolated, alienated, dislocated, he tries to join a virtual community, but lacks the wherewithall, let’s say, to observe its norms (the posts which got him excluded had nothing to do with the list’s ostensive subject matter). Which isn’t surprising — he’s not using the internet for dialogue, but as a displaced or ersatz form of therapy but without a real interlocutor, just to make his voice heard, without knowing who he’s talking to.
Nutter No.2’s identity is also elusive but equally symptomatic. A little googling by one or two list members throws up a couple of different candidates, or perhaps the same one under different guises—a person’s internet identity is always fragmented and fragmentary—but here’s the rub: we’re speaking of an academic listserv, and whatever he is, he’s not an academic (otherwise it would be easy to track him down). This is not necessarily an obstacle in itself, but it becomes a problem if the subject perceives their relation to the group as a problematic one for this very reason. Their ambiguous positioning comes to be expressed, in a case like this, in a violation of decorum through an aggravated use of language, which includes certain symptomatic features of its own. One such is a stream of references to disparate authority figures—in common parlance, name-dropping—and assortment of abstruse and recondite facts, often thrown together by mere association, simultaneously intended to give the impression of encyclopaedic intellectual knowledge and to intimidate the critic. Another is the deliberate misspelling of the names of those he subjects to ad hominem attacks. If this suggests someone with ‘psychological problems’, perhaps these only express themselves in his forum postings. All the same, it’s as if, fuelled with resentment, he’s challenging the group to exclude him in order to affirm his outsider position. While for Nutter No.1, being excluded from the list must have been a painful experience.
We know that text-based screen-writing is a denuded medium, readily prone to misreading because of decontextualisation, but that this very difficulty has also generated new and creative uses of writing and language, from smileys to the abbreviated jargon of texting and Twitter, or the cryptic messages many people post on Facebook. Academics deal with this slipperiness by embracing the internet’s informality, but since tropes like irony and sarcasm are dangerous territory, at the same time as observing the decorum of their vocation and discipline. Context is everything. In other internet forums, like newspaper comments columns, the decorum is weaker, and nutters rather more common—people who use the space to vent and sound off, believing that this is their fundamental democratic right, however ‘extremist’ they may be, thus necessitating moderators to regularly remove the worst offenders.
The problem is that the internet transcends and displaces the speech genres of the real social world, the implicit code of utterance appropriate to the different kinds of social space in which it occurs—like the difference between the classroom, say, and the campus bar, where a completely different kind of speech is employed. Likewise the internet is not homogenous, there are also differences between different formats (between a blog like this, for instance and a ‘status update’ on Facebook) which can render the subject’s identity unstable, for either good or ill, precisely to the extent that internet screen-writing is unanchored from social reality.
By opening up imaginary and imaginative spaces for new modes of inter- and quasi-personal communication, so often under conditions where the speaker may not know who they’re addressing and who is responding, the web allows for both deception and empowerment. A dozen years ago, a young cousin of mine in North America, belonging to an observant family, confessed to me that he’d run up a huge internet bill (this was before broadband) by spending too much time on a lesbian chatroom. This year, on the other hand, on a visit to Italy for a workshop in phototherapy I learnt how the internet is being used in a community mental health programme in Lucca as one of a battery of therapeutic activities, from art and music to video, journalism, and an online multimedia magazine. (See this post and this video.) Here the therapeutic value is multiple: with digital media providing rapid positive reinforcement, it succours the re-insertion of the individual into a collective, because it’s cooperative, social and outward directed. The patients are able to go and investigate local issues in the safety of the group, at the same time as sharing a sense of common experience. And by giving them a voice in the local community it also involves a certain politics, like the experience in Argentina of a radio programme broadcast from a mental hospital in Buenos Aires and widely networked—the subject of a wonderful documentary, L22 Radio La Colifata, by Carlos Larrondo. This is the beneficent power of decentralised media, which Vertov and Brecht both argued for way back between the two world wars, now manifest on the web in a manner far beyond their dreams. This kind of public speech is a genuinely democratising force which directly poses awkward and difficult questions to authority.