By Michelle Garcia
Originally published on Advocate.com May 07 2014 7:30 AM ET
I finished college at a time when some journalism professors were still talking about the Internet as though it was a fad (and I'm only 29, so it wasn't that long ago). But here I am, eight years after I tossed that mortarboard in the air, working as a journalist. Like most in our profession, I work on the Web. Unlike some, I'm generally quite pleased about it. But as much as I love the rush of running out of a restaurant at lunch to write a breaking news story and put it up immediately on the home page, there is a serious, soul-sucking drawback to working on the Web. It's anger.
Though some optimists and your 1994 Weekly Reader may describe the Web as the information superhighway, one could easily mistake it for the river of anger-driven slime that ran under New York City in Ghostbusters II. It just feeds itself and builds on more anger; and half of the time that anger is completely warranted. Internet campaigns get companies to change antigay policies or urge organizations to rescind an award from their racist recipients. People can do a lot with the power of the Internet when activism, thoughtful planning, and free speech converge. As a nation we petitioned the White House to deport Justin Bieber back to Canada. If that wasn't the sort of grassroots activism that our forefathers and foremothers fought for, then I don't know what to believe anymore.
On the other hand, the Internet gives everyone a platform. I'm certainly not one of those journalists who hate bloggers. But while blogging, tweeting, commenting on articles, and photo-sharing are not necessarily bad things, they allow people to voice an opinion — any opinion, at any time, whether it's steeped in truth or completely misinformed and ignorantly unchangeable. And for some reason, because those platforms are so open to use, a complete lunatic can reach just as many people as someone with a reasonable and sound argument (though you could say the same thing about cable news).
You and I might be judicious enough to differentiate facts from uninformed idiocy, but not everyone is. People like to make the sarcastic statement "If it's on the Internet, it must be true." But I think lots of people actually subscribe to that way of thinking, and they use anything they see, even if it's some schmuck's comment on a Reuters article, to back up their own unfounded beliefs. Journalists fall prey to this too. We've falsely reported on hoaxes (thanks, radio DJs and Jimmy Kimmel), and one time, I was entrapped by some closeted hack reporter who was trying to pitch me a story about how Barack Obama has AIDS and Michelle Obama is his beard; all information that he claimed was in various reported articles. There were no such articles. They were comments on a Baltimore Sun story, if my memory serves me correctly. But don't worry, America. This guy claims to go city to city informing others of this theory, fueling more hate and stigma and lies, which manifests as — you guessed it — more Internet anger.
By no means am I a curmudgeon, a technophobe, or a Luddite. I don't think digital media is the end of books, magazines, television, radio, of film. But I worry that we're losing our ability to be humane to each other because of our newfound technical capabilities. At any moment, anyone with a Twitter account can issue a hate-filled 140-character missive aimed directly at anyone else, whether that recipient is the president of the United States or someone in their gym class. Again, I'm not saying people should not be allowed to voice their opinions or to disagree with anyone publicly, but the ability to put something out into the world so quickly often diminishes the weight that message carries. On platforms like Twitter, the game is to react with speed. And the easiest, quickest reaction to the untrained communicator, is anger. The next reaction is bad attempts at what some might call "comedy," followed by actual comedy.
And then there's anger-fueled comedy. Last week I became consumed with rage when a popular drag queen decided to make a video portraying one of our writers essentially being shot in the head. Apparently I'm humorless because I was enraged and appalled — in fact, this paragraph has taken me so long to write because the more I think about it, the angrier I get. Yes, the argument over drag versus transgender language has been incredibly contentious (thanks, Internet anger), but are we really that inhumane that we can make "jokes" about killing each other?
I like drag queens. I think drag queen culture is both brilliant and hilarious. Hell, some people may not like this, but I think RuPaul (other than some of the language he uses) is a unique intellect. But Alaska ThunderFuck's video crossed a line, and it exemplifies this growing surge of inhumanity that manifests in tweets, and gifs, and videos, and quippy blog posts.
This op-ed, as originally written last week, ended here with a long, pissed off paragraph about comedy, and anger, and blah, blah, blah. My column ended in anger, but it didn't feel right. It felt hypocritcal.
So we didn't publish it. And I'm glad we waited, because instead of just allowing that internet anger to stew, and fester, and generate more angry tweets, Alaska Thunderfuck did something incredibly humane. Alaska (née Justin Andrew Honard) apologized.
"I feel like I want to be in a world and in a community where we can be kinder to one another, because that is never going to hurt. … And that should start with myself," Honard said on the Feast of Fun podcast Monday night.
That apology filled my heart with hope. I'm not being naive, here. I know that one apology isn't going to change the world, but in a way it does. It shows the deepest cynic in me, that together, geared up with proton packs, and good spirits, the river of rage that courses through our social media streams can recede.
MICHELLE GARCIA is the managing editor of Advocate.com. If you asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, at age five, she would reply, "Peter Venkman." Follow her on Twitter @MzMichGarcia.