Sunday, July 12, 2009

Comicboards and the internet forum as liberal state: briefly

I started posting at Comicboards, a website with a huge range of superhero message boards, way back in 1997, when I was still pretty new to the internet. I started moderating a message board about a year and a half later, and I did that pretty consistently for about a decade. (Though, really, my heart was hardly into it for the last few years.) And since I quit eight or so months ago, I can probably count the number of days I've gone back to visit on one hand.

The problem with Comicboards - and it's been a problem since nearly the very beginning - is one that reminds me of one of the problems noted in Wendy Brown's critique of the liberal state: namely, that the liberal state privileges the juridical protection of the individual over that of the community. And that, in fact, it completely elides the recognition of a group identity that isn't specifically embodied in particular persons. (ie. A marginalized group of people is protected only insofar as the individuals that lay claim to that identity can't be discriminated against for comprising it. The group itself is considered to be nothing more than the sum of its parts.)

An example: The time before the most recent stop I made there, I got into an argument with an admittedly embittered poster who asked a question that amounted to 'which is kind of woman is worse - a lying slut or a cheating whore?' Now Comicboards has a system of rules that protect against "blatantly insulting" behaviour. The problem is, this community is 95% male and his obviously misogynistic question was a 'hypothetical' one and not addressed to anyone in particular - a key requirement of the "insult" rule being that there needs to be an individual who is the injured party. On the other hand, my response - in which I called him a misogynist and insisted that he was "crazy-wrong" - was personal and direct. And so the original post was left intact and my responses were branded a personal attack - evidently no one was familiar with my cutting-edge usage of the word "crazy", since it was deemed insulting to his mental state - and deleted.

And what was worse than the utterly twisted logic of determining injury, I think, was that the deletion of the only critical response to the post also, unfortunately, served as a tacit endorsement of misogyny. After all, if insults are against the rules and one post in the thread is deleted for containing insults while another is left untouched, then it follows that the untouched post is not insulting, right?

Another example: More recently, a poster admitted to confusion over the vague intimation of racial solidarity expressed by the Redskins' Jason Campbell over the death of Steve McNair, both of whom are/were two of only a small handful of black NFL quarterbacks. He wondered why the verbalization of black solidarity was socially permissable when he was certain that white solidarity would be met with charges of racism. My response was to point out that the two were historically overdetermined in very different ways - like feminism, black American solidarity is usually an expression of equality, while white solidarity, like masculinism, has tended to be an expression of superiority - and that there was no reason to assume, much less any evidence that would prove, that Campbell's grief was expressive of racial superiority. (Among other points as to the incomparability of white and black racial solidarity and the NFL that, you'll have to forgive me, are too numerous and long to list here. And probably too boring.)

And that response prompted one of Comicboards' managers to sincerely liken Campbell's words of mourning to those shouted by a gang of ostensibly black supremacist teens that attacked a white family, an analogy that was admittedly "outrageous" but which he asserted was "no joke". That such an ostentatiously racist comparison can be made by one of the site's administrators speaks powerfully, I think, to the pervasiveness of the technology of liberal individuation described above. Given that both Campbell and the teens are asserting some affinity for a community and belonging beyond that of liberal individuals relating to other liberal individuals, they're equally suspicious and problematized by the system's logic, one that's premised on an idea of equality that's ahistorical and can't register the historical overdetermination of race.

Just as a sexist attack on women is not an actual attack for lack of an individual woman who is its victim, "racism" is measurable only within a singularity - the decontextualized events and individuals who have been stripped of the historical and social specifics that actually make racism a meaningful concept in the first place. (And we were told that the internet was going to change everything.)


Silver Belles said...

This is a really interesting thought!

I've seen similar dismissals of racism and sexism on message boards but assumed it was a culture specific to that board. It's interesting to make connections to the liberal state and the way it really fails to engage with experiences/ histories/ perspectives outside the assumption of radical individualism.

neilshyminsky said...

It's not surprising, I think - internet forums are micro-states of a sort, with overdeveloped and contradictory boundaries, rules, and punishments. I suspect that something about the lack of obvious socio-cultural signifiers - everyone is just a name, and unless that name is somehow explicit it is by default white and male - also plays into the radical individualism of the internet.

(And I would also not be surprised if comic book fans, who tend to be white, male, young, and hetero, are particularly apt to dismiss identity politics anyway.)

Dr Ranke Welcha said...

The internet did change everything - just not for the better in every case.

Your first anecdote reminded me of something online that I once witnessed. I've been part of a World of Warcraft forum for a few years now. There was a thread a while back in which a few users had been posting misogynistic comments. Someone took offense to what was being said and one of the comment posters argued that the forum was populated largely by a male user base - potentially all male - and that the comments reflected that, without need for adjustment. Very swiftly, a number of other posters came forward in response as being female users (admittedly, they could have been lying). It could be that, in a faceless, voiceless forum, many users subconsciously apply their own attributes to everyone within the system. There also seems to be a lack of preemptive empathy online, with plain text not being sufficient to represent another human being, on the other side, for some people.

As for the racist admin: I've been part of more than one forum where the admins were far more tactless and socially ignorant than the regular users. It seems to be a trend in certain communities. The comment is a tricky one. While it is ridiculous, blatantly racist and alarming in a plain common sense way, is its being delivered by an admin so ball-breakingly stunning - given the environment?

In a sense, it could be argued that the comment came from an inexperienced debater and moron and moron's are likely to say stupid shit, whoever they are. The admins have no doubt supported by silence questionable statements before. It's a forum that, from your own experiences, is monitored with a biased system of beliefs.

On the flip-side is my (frequently made) argument that the use of defences like; "They're human. Sometimes humans see things differently/make mistakes" is simply not good enough. People need to be better than human - at least from a common sense and ethical standpoint. Certainly, actually being more than human is kind of impossible but the effort should be made, instead of relying on weak platitudes as an excuse for a lack of intellectual ambition or conscientious ignorance.

The internet seems to have just given idiots another global voice - outside of their regular airing on Jerry Springer episodes.

neilshyminsky said...

"It could be that, in a faceless, voiceless forum, many users subconsciously apply their own attributes to everyone within the system."

I don't know about 'their own' - I think that most of us like to think that we deviate from the norm in subtle but important ways - but there's a(n implicitly white, hetero-male) norm that seems to characterize and underlie the system and the interactions that it encourages.

"While it is ridiculous, blatantly racist and alarming in a plain common sense way, is its being delivered by an admin so ball-breakingly stunning - given the environment?"

Not stunning, but telling. These sorts of things can usually be written-off as exceptions or extremes so as to reestablish the innocence of the system as a whole. But when an administrator - someone positioned as a maintainer of the system - commits an egregious act it's a lot harder to claim its exceptionalism. Or, for that matter, to claim that racism isn't a part of the system.

"People need to be better than human - at least from a common sense and ethical standpoint."

Admitting you're fallible is always an important step, so long as it's the beginning of a process rather than its conclusion, which is how it's usually deployed. But we didn't even reach that point in the interaction that inspired me to write the second anecdote.

Dr Ranke Welcha said...

Occasions like that are very telling, as you say and disheartening. I haven't frequented any forums or large online communities for quite a while now - partly because of users and admins discussed in your post. They seem to nourish the little left-wing version of the vigilante Rorschach that lives inside me. And characters like that inside someone can only lead to trouble or eroticism; depending on if we're talking about morality or fan-fiction. (Maybe both trouble and eroticism for fan-fiction)

I'd also just like to say that I'm somewhat proud of the fact that I finally left a comment on your blog that amounts to more than just, "I totally agree with what you said in your post, man!"

Peter said...

Hey Neil, I feel your sense of disturbance! I myself had various problems with the site in question many eons ago, as you probably remember. It's only by chance I stumbled onto this post (by doing a search on Grant Morrison's NXM Annual of all things, leading me to a 2007 post where you responded, and then I went to this blog to check out what you were up to :))

Having been in the system and type of community myself, I know how liberating it was to be rid of it. Internet communities of any sort no longer hold any interest to me exactly because the way of thinking and the arbitrary nature of policing. It's basically the bullies taking over the schoolyard and making others toe the line by pretending they're the ones who make up what's socially acceptable.

Anyhoo, I'll do my best to keep up with this blog, I've got a couple weeks of vacation coming up, which makes it easier to actually be online and comment on posts and the like :) I'll continue reading on posts below now!

Take care,
--PastePotPete/Beast/Peter :)

neilshyminsky said...

Peter! Wow, it's been such a long time - How have you been? What have you been up to?

Peter said...

Hey Neil, it has been a long time indeed :) I'm still stalking the internet, but far less so than I used to, obviously. Being happily married for almost 2 years now (with a woman who I wouldn't know if it wasn't for Lobdell's Uncanny X-Men #325 of all things!) has made it that I spend the majority of my time with her, when I'm not working at the university. I'm a mere administrative employee but I pride myself in helping the educational center I'm a part of to grow rather strongly in the nearly six years I've worked there.

I still watch oodles of tv (one of my and Sequoia's favorite pastimes) and reading comics/books will always have a central place in my life, but the desire to chat about the contents has faded a lot (possibly because I have a chat partner right here with me whenever I want to opine on anything I've read, I never really thought of that before :)

So my life has been largely unexciting apart from the move-her-over-from-Pennsylvania-and-live-a-happy-life-together aspect, of course. Unexciting yet highly enjoyable and recommended to any and all, really ;)

I have yet to fully catch up on your writings here, so I'll just return the question and ask you how you've been, although obviously I'll be able to glean certain things from the blogposts! For a while I had the idea in mind to try my hand at regular blogging, but I don't seem to have the self-control for it: I can't tell myself at the right times to sit down and write, largely because I'm too easily distracted by things such as playing Lego Indiana Jones on the Playstation, for instance (yeah, I'm a total Legohead again, something I'd grown out of when I got into comics but grew back into when a large chunk of comics were being steered by people I find annoying--as one hobby went past its prime, another one swiftly replaced it, it must be my obsessive personality :)

Hope you're doing well at any rate, cool to see you have the discipline that I don't, and amazing you stuck it out at the comicboards for as long as you did!

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