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Get Out of the
Rabbit Hole

Get Out of the
Rabbit Hole


As the Internet continues to suck us into a virtual reality, gay culture in the real world is slipping away.

Am I the only gay man on the planet who doesn't believe the Internet will provide a solution to all the problems in the LGBT community?

Most gay bookstores are struggling to stay open, and while our widespread support of them has been lackluster at best, the real culprit behind their demise is turning out to be the Web. Online retailers are crushing brick-and-mortar bookstores across the country, without regard for race or sexual orientation. (One of the latest victims is the Lambda Rising bookstore in Baltimore, which closed in May after two decades in business because of slumping sales.)

While most writers and readers I meet are coming to terms with this hard fact, many are also desperate to believe the Internet is somehow going to be a replacement for the actual gay bookstore, like some giant salon where we all commune over our favorite reads. I don't buy it. Gay bookstores are not just retailers. They are the secular temples for a community that is understandably averse to organized religion. They are places where knowledge and spiritual experience are exchanged in an environment that isn't driven primarily by the pursuit of sex. If we abandon them to market forces, we had better replace them with something vital, and currently, there aren't any real alternatives.

Don't get me wrong. I have no problem with the technology. (I have over 400 Facebook friends, only 20 of whom I have actually dined with.) But I have a problem with the incredibly limited way in which most people use the resources they find online. While notorious hookup sites for gay men are often associated with drug-fueled, unsafe sex, the sad reality is that most of their members aren't interested in meeting anyone at all. (Yes, I was once a member of one. My tenure was brief and unsuccessful.) Sure, users of these sites devote hours to taking strategically lit self-portraits, which range from the suggestive to the explicit. But the majority of member profiles contain denunciations of "flakes and time-wasters," suggesting the presence of a large group of men who are all talk and no play. Need proof? Take a look at the amount of time most of these men spend online. They never log off long enough to have sex with anyone. The real thrill for these men is engaging in a form of detached exhibitionism while carrying on prolonged Internet chats with people they'll never meet, men they turn into a fantasy based solely on the superficial attributes each person has listed (and often lied about) in his profile.

If you need a more sanitized example of how the majority of people interact online, check out the comments section of your favorite blog, where anonymity allows users to act like school-yard bullies and make absurd and often defamatory statements they wouldn't dare make in the real world. Not even the seemingly most apolitical websites are safe. One of my secret geeky passions is a site devoted to commercial aviation, but I try to steer clear of the discussion board, where a question about a retired model of airplane is likely to devolve into a hissing catfight within four posts. In the same way most gay men who pursue sex online tell themselves they are chatting with the man of their dreams, the outraged folks commenting on blogs convince themselves they are locked in mortal combat with their most difficult parent.

Gay people are "first adopters," a demographic that is usually the first to consume and spread new technologies. As such, we've tended to overvalue the positive aspects of online communities. These are wonderful things when they inspire people to go out into the real world and do actual things--such as come out of the closet or campaign for a favorite candidate. But for the most part, the Internet is taking users down a rabbit hole where their behaviors are defined by a noxious blend of arrogance and self-deception bred by isolation.

So let's stop shutting down necessary discussions of our ailing societal institutions with the dismissive assertion that the Internet will deliver the solution. It's our contributions that determine what the Web will provide, and at the moment we need to offer better material. In the meantime, if the online gay bookstore is going to be defined by the same hostility and self-delusion that mar most online communities, those of us who love the written word are better off hosting book clubs in our living rooms.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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Christopher Rice