Sunday, April 24, 2005

Beneath the Bridge

Sorry it has taken me so long to post this month. Nothing horrible happened; I've just been unbelievably swamped and am still working at dragging myself out from under the load. Anyway, this post has been percolating since my last one and you'll soon discover why.

First, a little history. I grew up in the diplomatic community overseas. This community is unique from what I've been able to tell because it absorbs both locals and diplomats from other countries. We shared company at parties, priests at mass and generally made a group of broad perspectives that came together at every opportunity. Add to that my parents, and this group of people ends up including wandering artists, poets, writers, a variety of expatriates from all over, and what have you that happens to cross their way.

It was a wonderful way to grow up. I had the opportunity of a liberal arts education spread before me as a banquet. All I had to do was learn how to act and sound like an adult and pretty soon they forgot who they spoke with (it helped that at ten I was the size of many adults in our Middle Eastern community ;)). I succeeded in this adaptation so well that my next door neighbor (25 years old?) came and asked my father about the fascinating woman he met at their party. It took some doing for my father to realize he meant me. I was 14, maybe?

Anyway, I took to a liberal arts college like a fish to water. I would spend hours just talking with people, starting with one topic and then following linked threads (sometimes barely linked) on to the next topic and the next, exploring philosophy, art, science, psychology, literature, what have you, much like I had with the poets, diplomats and foreign dignitaries whose company I had enjoyed in my younger years.

Since leaving college, I've missed that coffee house atmosphere. People around me now are too busy with life (as am I) to explore random thoughts just for the fun of seeing where they end up. There is something about unbridled intellectualism that gets eaten up by the real world, taken over by the need to pay rent, feed kids, hug your husband and crash exhausted in front of the television to get a desperately needed nap.

But, just because I didn't have the energy for unbridled intellectualism didn't mean the desire went away. I can't very well spend my time hanging out in college coffee houses. If I did, I'd probably bring my laptop and just ignore everyone. Without being a college student with a group of friends crafted by the classes I'm taking, I'm much too introverted to burst in to someone else's conversation. Besides, even the more outgoing of college students know they have to offer something before just bursting in on someone else's gathering, though of course not all understand the basic politeness that should govern civilized society.

So, in a sideways attempt to evict these thoughts without having to leave the comfort of my current life, I created Stray Thoughts. That's right. This blog was created out of the desire for uncontrolled, tangential discussion crossing philosophical and other boundaries for the pure enjoyment of considering those questions that we don't face in day-to-day life.

And thus I come to the meaning of this long trail through my history. When I asked about what we really need, I limited the scope to material needs because I was making a specific point. One of the replies expanded the discussion to non-material needs and referred to a controversial political and moral issue. I checked with a couple people who are more Internet savvy than I am and they confirmed these were the classic signs of a troll. Somehow, my little corner of the universe had garnered a troll.

Wait a minute. Expanding the topic beyond the original scope, following tangential threads, exploring political and moral questions. Doesn't this sound like something familiar? Maybe even what I described as what I missed?

Okay, that was just a teaser. Here's the full and complete story.

Despite having all the characteristics of a troll, my troll wasn't one. My troll was in fact my father...who just forgot to sign the post. I discovered this in a very awkward moment discussing the intrusion of my very first troll with, among others, my father. It actually took a day or two for my gut feeling to drive me to do some checking and that was the only answer. Just imagine the apology letter I had to send. My father, a relative innocent in this whole thing (similar to me), had no idea what a troll was. He'd forgotten the specifics of his post and so didn't even realize I had accused him so wrongly. I pointed out the same characteristics that I mentioned above...twice. Since then, the tangle has gnawed in the back of my head until I had to say something.

The World Wide Web has done so much to expand our universe, to allow for conversations on a variety of topics with people from all over the world. Along with this has come the unwelcome but familiar college student who chooses to intrude on others' conversations with out so much as a "may I?"

The sad part is that grand opportunities for fun discussions get lost. Those of us who enjoy such discussions for their own sake don't want to start up on the Web for fear of attracting the bottom feeders. So much is lost to those whose activities under the bridge have little to do with a fishing pole, a sandwich and good friends having a chat. Instead, they seek the rush that comes with scaring off anyone brave enough to walk across to see what might be fascinating on the other side.

This is not the only thing we've lost to those who cannot behave reasonably, but I for one will mourn it.


Holly said...

For what it's worth, you can eliminate a fair amount of trolling behavior by stating your rules up front, requiring an authenticated sign-in, and being willing to use net tools to remove those few folks who refuse to act in a civilized fashion. It's the way Forward Motion maintained a pretty high level of discourse, and went from five or six folks to 7000 with very few eruptions since 1996 or so.

I created FM for pretty much the same reasons you identified -- wanting to talk intelligently to intelligent people about subjects of mutual interest. And I'm interested in almost everything. The place succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. From my perspective, it was a victim of its own success, because at around the thousand-member mark, I suddenly found myself more an administrator than a participant, and the part of it that I enjoyed most became the part I couldn't participate in anymore without generating trolls like flies. Authority breeds people who want to take potshots.

This has rambled, but I maintain that the possibility of intelligent debate across a wide variety of topics exists, if you have the energy to erect a few barriers and then close the gates against the roving Vandals and Visigoths that will show up from time to time to try sacking your citadel.

Margaret said...

True enough. That's half the reason I grew quickly addicted to FM too, though I tend to keep focused on the writing end there with occassional discussions in chat that go beyond it.

However, turns out for now at least I don't need to errect those barriers. We'll have to see what choice I make should it come to that.

Valerie Comer said...

Good points, all, but I truly find it hilarious that your own daddy was your troll. May you never have a nastier one... :)

Dad said...

Gee, makes me feel like I just met Billy Goat Gruff. I must admit that my impulse was to expand the conversation, but you've made me realize that it takes a real effort to convey in words alone the nuances, emotions, and expectations which come across so easily in conversation. I really should learn to use those emoticons more.:>)

Margaret said...

Hugs, Dad.

The Internet giveth and it taketh away. One of the hardest things I've learned is to read everything I post four ways from Sunday and still I manage to give impressions I didn't mean to, smilie or no smilie. It's hard to remember that something that seems so easy is actually more complex than you ever imagined.