Neil's News

Style vs Substance

20 August 2005

As a freshman at Carleton I wrote an essay about the social effects of this new-fangled thing called "the Internet". What set the Internet apart from most other forms of communication was that thoughts stood or fell on their own, they weren't affected by their owner's age, gender, looks, race or background. Spoken accents, body language, physical height or bank balance play no part in Internet communication. Human prejudices can't penetrate the typed word. The only thing that matters is one's ideas. Mass-adoption of the Internet was taking us towards a more intellectual, less superficial world.

Obviously this was somewhat naïve. The 'net is just as prejudiced and petty as real life; it just takes different forms.

Not long ago I conducted an experiment. I assumed an alias and quietly joined a small online community of very intelligent people. Since I already happened to know most of them personally, I figured it wouldn't take long for this alias to become established. There was only one catch. Everything I typed was passed through a Perl script which lightly seeded it with IM contractions. Three substitutions: 'you' became 'u', 'to' became '2' and 'for' became '4'. That's it, nothing heavy like 'l33t sp34k', just some evidence that the person was used to cramped keypads. In all other respects, the contents of what was typed was what one would normally expect from me.

Initially the members of this community poked fun at the typography. This was to be expected. Each community has its own flavour and older members encourage new arrivals to be aware of the local culture. But the laughter didn't die off. It got sharper. Everything I posted was either ignored or met with contempt or ridicule. There was not a single response to the content of my text. Nobody had the courage to be the first one to say something positive. After a couple of months I quietly ended the experiment.

There's one unanswered question which really bothers me. If the situation were reversed and I'd been part of the community, would I have been part of the mob?

My seven year old computer just blew up with some wicked thumping/thrashing noises as the drives failed and the power supply arced. Great way to start a Monday morning. Especially when one has a major assignment due on Tuesday...

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