Re: The Big 8
Twenty years ago this month, my father's newspaper back in my hometown decided to try something to gin up reader interest and participation. "Quote/Unquote" it was called; it ran on Mondays down the left side of the front page. Anyone could call in to an answering machine, leave whatever was on their mind and, within certain parameters, the paper would publish it - entirely anonymous.
In a town our size it was an instant hit. Not many people like to show up at public meetings to complain about things like taxes or poor service, because it takes an hour off your day, requires speaking in public, facing down those you criticize and a feeling that it's a wasted effort. But given the chance to unload immediately, conveniently and with zero consequences, people responded.
At first, readers played nice and even left their names - especially if they were complimenting someone. But then the typesetters who transcribed the tapes started telling us of wild gossip and accusations being left on the machine. Sports fans routinely charged our sports editor with bias. The super-religious repeatedly condemned Dad to hell. Kids sang or cussed for long stretches, I guess just to run out the machine's tape. Even my friends and I called to complain anonymously - but in my defense, hilariously - about the closure of an X-rated drive-in.
The death blow came when two tough guys in my high school class left a series of messages about the threat posed by their ridiculous "gang," all demanding police action. I wanted no part of any trouble with them, so I kept my mouth shut. But their message sounded credible enough that a front page news story was written about it, and that's when I spilled the beans. Then came a retraction. Dad was embarrassed and furious, and Quote/Unquote was terminated.
That was 20 years ago. I'm not saying my father's newspaper was the forum that invented trolling. But thinking back, Quote/Unquote's content definitely foreshadowed it, and nearly all of the rancid behavior associated with purely unaccountable, anonymous words. Every day online, any site I visit, I'm nearly dumbstruck by the commentariat's bottomless capacity for instant and constant hostility to every idea, no matter how benign. And then I remember I have heard it all before, in the small-minded orthodoxy of life in a backwater of petty conflicts, empty outrage and its cheap expression.
Some headlines from this weekend's report: