It’s one of those stories about which it’s impossible to be cynical. Alice Pyne, a British teenager suffering from terminal Hodgkin’s lymphoma, has drawn up a “bucket list” of things she’d like to achieve before she dies.
This being the social media age, Alice posted her list online and – this being the Internet age – thousands of well-wishers are now using Twitter, Facebook and the rest to help make a dying girl’s dreams come true.
Or as the standfirst of Mary Elizabeth Williams’s Salon article put it: “Alice Pyne still has a few things she’d like to do. Now the Internet community is making them happen.”
Hrm. It might be impossible to be cynical about Alice Pyne and the generous folks who have rallied to her comfort — but as for the wider notion of a good and noble “Internet community”? Yeah, that one is way overdue for demolition.
Let’s start with the phrase itself: The Internet Community – that ragtag band of 2.09 billion people currently online who, while counting Nobel prize winners, Presidents and other overworked souls amongst their numbers, are always ready to take up whatever cause seems most deserving. Especially if that cause happens to have as its figurehead a sick child, a brave soldier, an attractive woman fallen on hard times or – I dunno – an unemployed kitten who is bravely trying to overthrow a murderous Arab regime. (The only thing the Internet Community loves more than the underdog is the undercat). One might as well praise the amazing work being done by the “electricity community” or the “oxygen community”.
Really, what the press calls The Internet Community is more accurately described as The People With Too Much Time On Their Hands Community — or perhaps The I Spend My Life Dicking Around On Twitter And Call It A Job Community, The I’ll Do Anything The Internet Tells Me To Do Community or The So Fucking Gullible I Should Be Locked Away For My Own Safety Community.
Just take a look at some of the Community’s other triumphs over the past few weeks. Back on May 25th, they declared a Fatwa on Urban Outfitters after the evil corporate behemoth (The Man: check) ripped off some jewelry designs from Etsy member Stevie Koerner (attractive woman on hard times: check). The result: a gale of Twitter and blogosphere outrage directed against the company and a ton of orders for Koerner, who told NBC Chicago:
“The internet community is so strong, and I’m happy people are fired up about supporting independent artists and designers… It’s very inspiring to be part of a community who has unified through the internet and whose voice has been heard.”
By the time Regretsy’s Helen Killer pointed out that Koerner’s own design was far from original, and that Urban Outfitters were probably innocent in this case, the Community had already moved on to their next good cause.
Step forward A Gay Girl In Damascus, a young lesbian blogger (check!) called Amina Abdullah who was reportedly arrested by Syrian forces (check! check!) for her brave stand (check!) against an oppressive regime. It didn’t take long for Amina’s plight to be the talk of the Twitterverse, with The Internet Community demanding that “action” be taken (and emails be sent to the Syrian government) to secure her release. “A Gay Girl In Damascus Blogger Kidnapped: Take Action!” cried Feministing.com, linking to a “Free Amina Abdullah” Facebook page. It was only after the dreaded mainstream media (lead by NPR’s Andy Carvin) picked up the story that questions began to be asked: has anyone actually met Abdullah? Why does every attempted telephone or in-person interview with her end up being cancelled at the last minute? Why is the profile picture posted on Abdullah’s blog actually that of Londoner Jelena Lecic? Legitimate safety concerns or a cruel hoax? Who cares! As the moderator of the Free Amina group put it…
“Questions about Amina’s identity are surfacing. However, we think it is possible that the writer of the blog is indeed in custody, in which case, it is important to continue to support her.”
On Wednesday it was time for another boycott; this time against Delta airlines for their shameful treatment of a group of soldiers returning from Afghanistan (ding ding ding!) who were charged $200 each in excess baggage charges for their equipment. The soldiers in question made a video naming and shaming Delta and within hours the Internet Community were on the warpath. Meantime, back on the Reddit thread that sparked the initial outrage, people familiar with military transport (and airline) policy began to raise their hands and point out that – uh – Delta already has a special allowance for troops to check three bags at no charge, with the military reimbursing soldiers for any baggage charges beyond that. Sure enough, the video has since been deleted. Too late though – the calls for a boycott had already made it halfway around the world before the truth had put its pants on, forcing Delta to apologize for doing nothing wrong.
Spend a few minutes Googling The Internet Community and for every heartwarming success story like that of Alice Pyne’s bucket list you’ll find a hundred misplaced boycotts, bone-headed DDOS attacks, ass-backward outrage and hours wasted in the pursuit of non-justice. There’s a reason for the popularity of Snopes.com: the long-suffering mother of the Internet, constantly reminding its Community that it’s probably unwise to poke forks into electrical outlets.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the New Yorker that the most effective online campaigns are those which require the least effort: a click, a retweet, maybe an email or two. It should come as no surprise, then, that many self-styled Internet activists can’t find the time or inclination to carry out the most basic due diligence before throwing their hat into the ring of outrage.
And yet, suggesting that moronic, over-sentimental, knee-jerk outrage is unique to some mythical “Internet Community” is as ridiculous as giving that same Community credit for doing good. For all the seductive nonsense about the wisdom of the crowds, large groups of people have always tended to act in stupid ways. The Internet just makes it easier than ever to turn that stupidity into action.