We're All On Forums Now

Posted by IanWilliams at 9:59 PM on Jun 15, 2016

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I've been meaning to write this for a bit and I've either been too lazy or too on vacation to get to it. 8am on a Thursday is a fine time to get to it, though, so I'm starting it up.

Back in late May, in the wake of Matt Bruenig's controversial firing, all around smart guy Gavin Mueller wrote a good materialist read on the way social media, especially Twitter, interact with the de-professionalization of writing. Read it in full, but I've been promising Gavin I'd weigh in one aspect in particular. To quote:

There is also a mostly untold story of the socialization of many of these writers on massive message boards, such as Something Awful, where humor and takedowns were as prized as informative essays, if not moreso. All of these inflect today’s content, which is built almost entirely from a critical perspective, often veering into contrarianism for sheer effect: in current-day parlance, this is known as “a take.” (A “hot take” is simply a very timely take.)

Gavin is onto something important by placing the current media climate and the way we interact on Twitter in the context of early 2000s message boards. He's also right that it's a mostly untold story. I'd go so far as to say that figuring out how the current crop of humor writers, weird twitterers, and columnists (it's downright amazing how many columnists and editors come from Something Awful's culture) both came to be and how the whole enterprise "works". The style we've ended up with didn't spring from a vacuum, even though we act like it did, and it's not enough to simply handwave the style of Twitter discourse as generic trolling or whatever we're collectively using to say this is just how we do things online in 2016.

(To seal Gavin's insight here, this morning he compared Twitter to a rowdy internet forum, rather than a traditional social network. He's right.)

Without getting too overlong, I agree. You have to understand how internet forums work in order to understand how the dominant strains of media Twitter work. I also agree that nobody's talking about it, for a variety of vague reasons centering on both a lack of knowledge and the fact that jumping into the arcane politics surrounding most forums is probably considered a little unseemly by the forever professionals Gavin talks about. But we should talk about it, and I will.

First, a little perspective. I was never active on Something Awful, but I was quasi-active on its rival/sister site, Portal of Evil. Portal of Evil was a curated list of Web 1.0's weird and disgusting side, a modern atrocity museum of Angelfire and Geocities sites devoted to strange, mostly harmless but sometimes harmful shit. People would then go hit the forums (one for each site, plus general discussion forums) to discuss the "exhibits"; you were never to interact with the people actually behind the sites for fear that they'd take them down or alter them.

Portal of Evil eventually established a spin-off site called Portal of Evil News. This was mostly done to keep PoE "pure": there was a cadre of people who resented discussion of politics or news in their discussions about shoe fetishists, 60 year old goth forklift drivers, etc on the PoE main forums. PoE News became a news aggregator, set up basically the same way as the main site, with news stories occupying the exhibit space.

I never posted much on PoE, but I was active enough on PoE News. The vibe was much the same as it was on Something Awful: a handful of whip smart, funny people in a sea of dross, dross which was sometimes very obviously mentally unwell and had that exacerbated by total immersion in an online-first existence. We also had our small share of now marginally famous people come out of it: Chet Faliszek (PoE owner) and Erik Wolpaw, who also ran Old Man Murray, ended up being very successful video game writers at Valve, K. Thor Jensen (co-owner) is a writer who did his own oral history of the site, and the site had a core of people who were reasonably high profile but who would certainly rather remain nameless, with a guy who worked on Capitol Hill and a successful emergency room doctor as samples.

So some observations of how the terms of internet discourse have transferred from Web 1.0 internet forums to Twitter. It should be noted that when I reference an early culture of forum posters, I'm not necessarily referencing people who were literally on the forums posting. I'm also referencing the people influenced by the culture which old interest forums barfed forth, which is a diverse mix of jokey and lefty Twitter. I'm also not passing judgment on what's good or bad about how we engage, just making some observations, so in the minute instance that someone reads this and says "aha, Ian Williams is on the side of the Slate/Salon press", no, I just think it's important to look at this underexamined influence on how internet social exchange has shaped up.

  • You buy in - This is an important one. Nobody who posts on a forum just happens to do so in the course of their normal lives. Forums are generally interest based; you're interested in a thing, you go to a site about it, one day you start posting. Regardless, the act of integrating into usually long-standing social circles underpins everything about forums. You're there because you want to be there, not because you must be. This sets certain expectations for forum discourse which don't sit easily with the way Twitter works. Twitter (and to a lesser extend Facebook and Google+) is public, has a low barrier to entry, and is a necessary part of professional writers' and journalists' jobs (ie they must be on it). With forums, there's an unspoken understanding that your presence means you've bought into the familiarity which comes with registration. You're expected to put up with more invective, usually, than you might otherwise. At PoE, when things got too personal in whatever the fight du jour was, a common refrain ran along the lines of, "This is Portal of Evil, see the name? You signed up for this."

Some of that expectation has transferred to Twitter, meaning that people from the forum world which shaped early Twitter discourse operated under basically the same rules: you're here, meaning you cleared the barrier to entry of interest/annoying signups/social integration, the terms of how we engage are set. Which is fine, as far as that goes, except, of course, that the people not from that world are operating under very different assumptions. That's cause for some bitter clashes and a long, tedious argument over whether social media is "public", one which is usually parsed in terms of sidewalks or public squares, ie "you're speaking in a public places", "you wouldn't come interrupt a conversation you overhear on a sidewalk". It's tedious because the internet isn't like a physical place; it's like the internet and should be figured out on its own terms. It's less public/private in the traditional sense and more what we think of social buy-in.

  • Grudges stretch forever - The internet is forever, trite but true. One thing about forums is that you, the poster, tend to winnow down the people you're actually comfortable with very quickly. You also expand who you dislike very quickly. This creates a feedback loop, where active posters lean on grudges to shape their interactions within the world of the forum as much as they do an exchange of information. Importantly, nobody is immune to this; I'm acutely aware of it and I've found myself falling into grudges in a forum I currently frequent, one which is (as of last night) heatedly discussing the nature of grudges in our interactions.

This is something which compounds with the age of the forum, meaning that once a forum moves into grudge settling as a primary or secondary means of social exchange, the whole thing is about to reach heat death. There's no way to roll it back, short of everyone simultaneously letting bygones be bygones. Note that doing the collective turn of the cheek is not automatically some desirable thing; some grudges are worth bearing and, despite what I'd like to think of as a generally chill nature, there are absolutely people I detest online who I'd never have a drink with. But it is to say that, at some point in the life cycle, things just collapse under their own social weight. This is almost exactly what happened to PoE: one day, Chet said fuck it, I can't be associated with doxing, terrible insults, and the threat of exhibits coming in to settle their grudges with the site, I'm out. So it closed.

Incidentally, media Twitter reminds me an awful lot of PoE that last year.

  • The sanctity of the own - It would be a mistake to say that Weird Twitter socialization revolves entirely around the concept of the own, but the own is the punctum of online discourse, an emotional exclamation point which lingers in the memory. Back in the forum years, a well-placed insult would be remembered for years (I still remember a few) where a deep dive into a poster's personal expertise, as the resident ER surgeon tended to share, faded quickly. That this style became currency in Twitter discourse makes perfect sense: Twitter is fast paced, impermanent, and rewards speed and quick thinking (quick thinking meaning something distinct from intelligent, book smart, or other adjectives, even though they often overlap).

Owns are another bifurcation point between Mueller's Deprofessional Class and the professional media increasingly at odds with them (or perhaps us, because I'm certainly of the same background). If Twitter rewards the style of the forum own (short, punchy, rapid fire, clever), if not the content, traditional journalists are terribly unequipped to counter it; their world requires either an editor or someone to edit. They also expect deference to their own expertise, something which is in short supply on Twitter as it currently works. The combination of the two creates frustration which often outstrips the gravity of the reason to be frustrated. With 140 characters, this dynamic is basically never going to change.

A popular Twitter account, @Goons_TXT, serves as testament to the brevity of the own and its relation to SA/PoE style forum discourse. The account rattles off the weird and uncomfortable from Something Awful's forums. These are in the form mostly of self-owns, with posters made anonymous sharing their masturbation habits or fetishes with an obliviousness to social mores which can only be hatched in a plugged into a 24/7 forum lifestyle can nurture. But the self-owns become owns of the nameless posters by virtue of the account sharing them, and they transfer to the Twitter medium effortlessly. Why? Because owns are already short, already funny, and already usually uncomfortable in nature.

  • We learned how to write there - All those reasons combined mean that you end up learning to write your ass off or disappear into the forum rabble. This is different from learning to write in the university sense; it's like the difference between street basketball and hitting endless summer camps run by assholes from Duke. The outcomes are different, just as the training. As it is, however you feel about Jeb Lund or Dan O'Sullivan, they're good writers; hell, O'Sullivan was on the 2015 short list of best sports writing, meaning even the people on the professional writing side recognize it. And you can practically go down the line, if you can separate style and content from intent, picking out who cut their teeth in forum wars from 2004. I can certainly say that, without Portal of Evil and, later, the Elitist Jerks Benefactors forums I wouldn't have the stylistic chops to make it. I'm not alone, whatever forum people came from.