Does the Internet Make Us Smaller? Report From WordCamp

At the end of last week someone chided me about going to WordCamp, the WordPress blogging platform’s annual conference in San Francisco, instead of going to Fresno for the marriage equality rally.

I responded by tweeting, “Alas, not Fresno. Ultimately, I think I can make a bigger impact writing and blogging, so WordCamp.” But I didn’t realize how telling those words were.

Yesterday’s conference was great. It was my second WordCamp and I’m always amazed at the interesting things I learn and the interesting group of people using the open source platform.

Matt Mullenweg, the founding developer of WordPress, is a dynamic speaker, and it’s a joy to watch him field questions. I have to keep reminding myself that he’s just a kid. As he pointed out, he was born in 1984. Without any raise of societal eyebrows, I could easily be Matt’s mom, which is a strange feeling.

But something happened yesterday during the conference, something that caught me entirely by surprise.

One of our after lunch speakers was Philip Greenspun, a computer scientist who was a pioneer in developing online communities.

Greenspun opened his presentation with the out-of-context quote by Sonia Sotomayor that conservatives latched onto last week and tossed around as proof of her “racism”: “A wise Latina woman … would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male.”

It was completely irrelevant to his speaking topic, but front and center on Greenspun’s weblog, and therefore obviously on his mind.

From there, Greenspun went on to blunder through one modern social gaffe after another, making fun of fat people, telling a callous story about himself and a friend whose mother died of breast cancer, and then posting this slide:

stupidjoke

Philip Greenspun's slide

All of this  – I think, because his point was actually pretty muddled – was in support of his topic “How the Web and the Weblog have Changed Writing”. His contention was that the internet has allowed people to speak their mind because lots of people have “one paragraph” ideas, which shouldn’t have to be forced into a longer format for publication.

Our literary culture is impoverished when every idea is stretched or amputated to fit the Procrustean bed made up by magazine and book publishers. When an author runs out of relevant stuff to say after 20 or 30 pages, that’s how long the essay should be. – Philip Greenspun

Fundamentally, I agree with Greenspun, but I completely disagreed with his presentation. His bigoted comments, which he said were intended to add humor, were entirely off the mark.  I’m not the only one who thought so, actual hisses (that weren’t mine) were heard in the auditorium as he flashed the slide making the carpet-munching joke.

I was both offended and fascinated that someone would bring this level of bigotry and insensitivity in front of a highly-diverse audience in San Francisco, of all places. (Not that it would have been appropriate anywhere.) I was equally surprised to find out that Greenspun is only 45, proof, I guess, that the trappings of conservatism are more tied to wealth than age.

I looked around the room at the sea of faces – male and female, and complete range of skin colors – and at the people flying outward signs of being gay and lesbian, and decided I needed to say something.

You see, it’s one thing to protest at a rally, or in the echoing universe of the internet, but quite another to confront it head-on. It’s one thing when an elderly relative makes a racist remark at a holiday meal. In that situation there’s not much to be gained by arguing with them. But when an “expert” standing in front of a huge group of people spouts this sort of toxic waste, they should be called on it.

So, at the end of the question and answer period, I asked Greenspun: “What sort of bubble do you live and work in that you think it’s okay to stand in front of a group of people and make disparaging remarks about women, Latinas, fat people, and gays and lesbians?”

The answer I got from our speaker wasn’t exactly an answer. It was sort of a condescending brush-off.

I did, however, get high-fives from the nice people sitting around me, and lots of Twitter messages from people who were equally appalled by his comments and glad I had said something.

There was a lot of conversation yesterday about building community, and how the internet facilitates that. It was at the root of several of the presentations, including Tara Hunt‘s presentation on making “whuffie” and Chris Pirillo’s inspiring presentation on why community has to have heart.

Really, community was at the heart of my question to Greenspun, too.

You see, the best thing about the internet is also the worst thing: It allows us to gather with people who think like ourselves, in an insulated electronic bubble.

This is a time when we’re seeing the fail and fall of newspapers all over the world, and an increasing number of people are using the internet as a primary source of information.

Online and on television, pundits and bloggers are becoming increasing confused with journalists.

The internet allows us to self-select what we want to read and hear. It’s more like a radio station than like newspapers. Newspapers put ideas and opinions in front of us daily, and frequently those ideas are different than our own. Radio stations play to a demographic. But reading websites and blogs allows us to quickly pre-filter what we don’t want to read.

I would wager that most of us, myself included, are reading less researched and edited neutral information, and less of what conflicts with our ideals, than we did five years ago. This makes us comfortable and makes us think our ideas are common and important, even when they’re not.

While the internet reaches all over the globe, allowing us to create community, if we don’t use it to expand our thinking and expose ourselves to new ideas and points of view different from our own, it can actually make us smaller as people.

And, while Greenspun didn’t answer my question yesterday, I think I have while writing this essay.

13 responses to “Does the Internet Make Us Smaller? Report From WordCamp

  1. Great insights, but I almost think your words are too generous to describe the experience of listening to that social wank ;)

    His comments caught many of us off guard — so glad you spoke up — Great post!

  2. I was in the other talk at WordCamp when all this was going on and was following the conversation on Twitter. I was so glad to hear you spoke up and had support from some other Wordcamp folks in the audience and on Twitter. That shit needed to be called out. Thanks for this post and being real in the community. You’re awesome.

  3. Pingback: 2009 WordCamp SF thoughts & impressions. « Creative Path Studio

  4. Your post summed up his talk pretty well and I wish I hadn’t wasted my time with his presentation!

  5. I was front and center (literally sitting front row right in front of the podium).

    When you asked that, instead of turning around and looking to see who it was I was looking at his eyes for a reaction.

    Sadly, I didn’t see one.

    Thank you for standing up.

  6. Thank you, everyone, for your support. I really appreciate it. I’m not nearly as feisty as my blog persona, but I’ve come to realize that, in the face of bigotry, silence = tacit approval.

  7. Wow, I had not heard Greenspun’s name since the ArsDigita days. What a bummer. Such potential, gone where?

  8. I left after about 15 minutes, and so I guess I didn’t hear some of the worst of it. I’m glad you spoke up.

  9. Pingback: WordCamp SF - The Takeaways | Are We Connected.com

  10. As the one who “chided” you on Twitter (though in spirit it was more of a curious query than an accusation) I just wanted to say thanks for writing this post, and moreover, thanks for having the courage to speak up in a situation when many others might not have known what to say. With any luck your words landed *somewhere* in his consciousness…

    • Thanks, Sarah, for taking the time to comment. I wasn’t at all offended by being chided.

      I know there’s a prevailing social construct that we should never disagree with “experts” but that doesn’t mean we have to swallow everything they say, hook, link, and sinker.

      The greater problem is that when people are really good at one thing, and rewarded for that, they start to think they’re experts in everything and that their ideas are unimpeachable.

      This is how we got an actor as California’s governor, and any number of other messes.

  11. It took a royal douche to make me check twitter to see if there were others who were as completely lost and annoyed as I was. I wasn’t alone, it turns out. Whew!

    At its end, I was tempted to raise my hand and ask him to summarize what the hell his point was when you raised yours and called him “dude.” Loved it.

    Some may have not said anything because they wanted to give Mr. Photo.net respect, but he didn’t deserve much after those “jokes.”

  12. I’m so sorry I missed this; you will have to drag me down there with you for the next Word Camp! I promise I’ll go. And thanks for speaking up!

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