Monday, April 29, 2013

The Lost Worlds

The other day, I was going through my list of bookmarked websites and came across an old forum I used to frequent. It wasn't anything special as far as forums go - it was a small Proboards forum made for video game fans to talk about stuff. Back when I was 15, the forum had some good traffic, catering to about 20 different people on a regular basis.

As of yesterday, nobody's posted in the forum since 2010, and the last time anyone had an honest-to-goodness conversation on this forum was 2008.

Remember when 2007 was a year? I think that's when I got a Facebook.

It's a bit strange to go through an old forum like this for me. There was a point in time where people would go on this website on a regular basis and talk about what was going on with their lives. It was all between strangers on the internet, but there was some acquaintanceship in being able to unwind through written conversation. Plus, seeing the same people online - hanging out in the same place - does create a sense of community after a while.

And now, years later, it's completely abandoned. All that's left is an archive of a 2-year bloc of social activity from over half a decade ago. The message board is dead.

How many forums have ended up like this? Hundreds? Thousands?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Internet Vigilantism

Perhaps you heard about the bombings that happened at the Boston marathon last week. The FBI got involved. And so did the Internet.

Pictured: Some poor saps with backpacks. Unheard of in a college-dense city like Boston.

Reddit, 4chan, and some other Internet communities decided to comb through public footage of the Boston marathon. Their aim was to find the marathon bombers themselves, and to piece together the narrative behind the event. After all, they had all the same resources as the FBI, minus the criminal database, the forensic evidence, witness testimony, and all of those other "extra" things.

These internet detectives assembled an extensive gallery of "suspicious" people. Tabloids found these pictures, printed them, and circulated them. When the FBI released blurry photos of the two suspects, the Internet communities doubled down on their efforts. They reduced their list of suspicious people to a middle-eastern-looking guy named Sunil Tripathi, who had gone missing prior to the bombing. People ate up the possibility that the person responsible for the bombings had been identified.

And then it turned out that the Internet got it completely wrong. It wasn't Sunil Tripathi. It was two Chechen brothers (which must have been a relief for middle-eastern people dealing with unwarranted backlash about this already). Of course, that didn't stop people from going on a completely misinformed witch hunt for the first guy before the debunking. And it isn't stopping crackpots from trying to continue that witch hunt. Oops.

This is internet vigilantism - and in this case, it misfired. These events demonstrate the power of the online sphere in shaping public opinion. The Internet can also have a stake in the action themselves, with users often getting involved in pursuing criminals and other targets. This phenomenon has happened before, and it will probably happen again. What is the anatomy of online vigilante justice, and what can be learned from its failure here?

Monday, April 15, 2013

DeviantART and the Teenage Psyche

There's a fun little game you can play online. Go to DeviantART and search the site using any two words in the English language. You win this game if your two-word combination has more than ten search results, AND does not contain anthropomorphic animal-people, variants on cat-people or dog-people, sonic the hedgehog, sonic the hedgehog's friends, furry pornography, anime pornography, or anime in general. If your search contains any of these things, you lose.

Let's start with something fairly mundane and innocent, like "tea pot".

Dammit! This was on the second page of search results.

What about something completely out there, like "oceanography moon"?

Hey, seems like - wait, YuGiOh fanfiction?!

It's a harder game than it seems.

But why can we even play this game in the first place? What is DeviantART, what kind of people does it attract, and what does it say about our culture as a whole?

Monday, April 8, 2013

A Personal Take on Online Social Justice

I've previously written a lot on social justice movements online. It was a broader, big-picture look at the phenomenon, so I thought that it would be worth writing about what online social justice movements may mean on an individual level.

Let's accept an assumption for the sake of argument: that any given individual is going to suffer from some degree of insecurity at one point or another.

Not really a radical assumption, no.

People generally accept the adage that life has its ups and downs, and that it is important to stand up eight times when you fall down seven. That adage is often shared when a person is at a (relatively) low point in their lives, and it is shared in order to remind them that they can - and should - move on. Presumably, such adages would only be shared during instances where that person is having trouble with moving on. It could be over a job rejection or a breakup or even something as mundane as receiving a lot of dirty looks throughout the day.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Online Atheism

Last week, I talked about the internet's role in social progress. I covered feminism, race relations, and LGBT rights, but I decided to save one movement for its own post: the secular movement.

What? It's only been a day since catholic Easter? I am the biggest jerk.

The secular community is unique in how dependent it's been on the internet. Unlike the civil rights movement, the waves of feminism, and LGBT's own beginnings with the Stonewall riots, there wasn't really a secular rallying call before the internet. Sure, secular organizations did exist as far back as the 19th century, but their effectiveness as community builders was far out-shined by the online.

Furthermore, the secular movement's role in society takes on a different form than other movements. On the one hand, the prevalence of religious superstition has universally affected our social dynamics; religion, after all, has been used to disenfranchise women, the LGBT community, and racial minorities. On the other hand, atheists have far fewer direct disadvantages than other minority groups. Women are fighting to reshape a culture that is geared towards dis-empowering them. People in the LGBT movement have a documented legal disadvantage. People in the secular movement (at least, in the Western world) are not legally disadvantaged - the 1st amendment of the United States Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights guarantee freedom of religion.

Consequently, the secular movement is primarily a cultural movement in the West. Atheists fight an attitude, not a legal system. That's not to say that legal battles don't exist - America is dominated by a Christian culture, and sometimes it takes legal action to remind the ignorant that, hey, church and state are separate. However, people active in the secular community can primarily be defined by their willingness to vocally question other people's beliefs.

As an atheist myself, I have a soft spot for other secular people. I've always been less of a participant and more of an observer of the secular community, but I can say that the fusion of secular intellectualism with the online platform has produced some interesting results.

Let's see where we've come from, and where we are going.