"Internet argument is a strange game," I tweeted one day, "The only winning move is not to play."
"NO IT'S NOT," a friend replied immediately. Moments later she called me Hitler.
I saved it as the perfect internet argument, at which point my friend went on to say my mother is gay (an uncontroversial fact) and sent me a picture of a Puerto Rican Hitler cat. We were comforting each other in the strange dance of the net. We were giggling. We were pushing back on the terrible pressure the net can put on you.
I have been on the net for just around twenty-two years, more than half of my life. For the record, memes were always there — they were like in-jokes, but for everyone. Every few years my way of interacting with the net changes. Usenet, mailing lists, web forums, Ytalk, MUDs, even Finger, among other things, were my gateways through the 1990s. Altavista changed everything, and Yahoo. I remember the first webportals, and how interesting they seemed.
I remember thinking everything was going to change, being overwhelmed with this thought, more than a few times — and always being right. Everything did change, again, and again. RSS, Blogging, Wikipedia, Google, web applications beyond the OS, instant messaging, and the very start of social networking took over how I saw the net in the 2000s. By 2007 Twitter was becoming part of my life, and was edging out other windows onto the net. I quit a lot of the net in 07, and came back on slowly over the next couple of years. For awareness of the the wider world, I turned to blogs. Then blogs gave way to Google News which gave way to Twitter by 2009, along with some mailing lists I held onto, and the ever-present Wikipedia. All different, all the same. In my decades, I have learned that the internet can be astoundingly kind and astoundingly cruel. It can be education, and turn around and build a cage of lies around you. It can save your life, and ruin it.
The net is the Promethean substance of this age. It can consume, it can destroy, and it can empower. Like fire, we have to learn to use it and live with it.
These are some of the things I’ve learned about living on the net so far:
- You don’t owe the internet your time. Your time is yours, whatever time you give the internet is a gift.
- The internet does not know this, and it will never learn.
- Time is the most precious thing you have. More than money, or land, or prestige, or any valuable thing you can think of, a life is measured in time. The sooner you walk away from a useless fight, the more of it you get to have.
- The net is not made of computer, wires, tubes, or dump trucks. It's made of humans and their desires. The net doesn't make social problems. It amplifies them until they can't be ignored.
- Trolls and haters are trying to live rent free in your head. You have some control over how much they succeed.
The net doesn't understand that people change, and doesn't tolerate it -- all growth is seen as hypocrisy.
- The internet broadcasts any mistake someone makes infinitely forever as if it was only a moment ago.
- The internet broadcasts any perceived mistake someone makes infinitely the same way.
- Bad information travels faster and wider than good.
- Good information can persist long enough to make a dent in it, but dear Lord the wait.
- The net never forgets. Forgetting is a gentle process of thought and learning which the net can't do. Losing things, which the net does plenty, is different.
- Don't internet angry. If you're angry , internet later.
- There are always too many emails. Also, blog posts, tweets, breaking news items, youtube videos, and Facebook posts.
There is too much Really Very Important information. You are always going to miss things, things that you shouldn’t miss. That’s just how the world is now. You have to learn to be ok with it.
- The net will teach you everything and anything, and all it wants in exchange is everything you are and all your time.
- You can sometimes talk people on the net out of bad ideas.
- You never talk them out of their really bad ideas.
The net destroys everything it loves.
- The net is easily offended. It is not your friend. You may have friends there, but the net is no one’s friend.
- It might very well be the best thing humans ever made, but it also might eat you.
In time the net will teach you that you simply can't care about everything that deserves to be cared about.
- It's ok to take breaks. In fact, it may be essential to take breaks.
So I'm taking a break. In this case, I'm taking a break from being @quinnnorton on Twitter, for a month. Twitter has been my new front door to the net for a couple of years, and like every doorway before it it, it has done wonderful things in my life. It has also given me ways to contribute to a larger discourse. It will also tear me apart like wolves happening upon an injured kid if I let down my guard for an instant. It tolerates no mistakes, attacks without warning, and likes to harry its prey. Its preferred form is the self-righteous mob. Everyone steps gingerly around those mobs these days. They are not new, or unique to Twitter in any way. But Twitter is how they are getting my time right now, and my time is my gift. My time is the only gift I have to give.
I will tweet my writing, and spend a few hours in touch to follow up with readers, but beyond that, I will sit quietly with my public Twitter time, and try to readjust the balances of my network life. I have learned we must do this often in the days of our new Prometheus. We must learn how to handle this fire. The first step to this is admitting we don't know yet how to live our networked lives.
Twenty-two years in, and I know I have only just begun to live here.