Rick Wamre: The internet’s bittersweet drama is a little too energy-sapping, so I think I’ll just watch

HomeworkA lot of people seem to enjoy spilling their guts on the internet. I am not one of those people. I am more of an online lurker. I like watching other people make fools of themselves or share advice, but I rarely feel compelled to add my two cents. Generally, if I wait long enough, someone smarter or gutsier will say what I would have said anyway.

For years, my college hosted something called a “listserv” (I don’t know why there’s no “e” on the end of the word). People posted whatever was on their minds about work-related issues, and other people commented as if they were yelling down the dormitory hall to friends, or sometimes at enemies.

People used their real names on the listserv because that was the rule. If you had something to say, the rest of the group made you stand behind (and sometimes eat) your words. The group offered the ultimate in self-policing, often becoming loud and raucous in an entertaining way, assuming you weren’t caught in the crossfire.

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The internet was established as a communications vehicle. But we all know that just because we’re communicating online doesn’t mean we’re actually saying anything useful.

Some of the commenters occasionally became vicious, and there were a few examples of the pack savaging wounded prey. I always think it’s odd that people seem so eager to say seemingly everything on their minds in front of peers; remaining mean and mad takes a lot of energy.

All of this is a precursor to the listserv’s death, which we were told was hastened by the cost of running it. Apparently, it’s expensive to run a listserv, even as Google offers something similar for free. So people were instructed to move over to Google and continue sniping, advising, seeking advice, showing off and lurking there.

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An interesting thing happened on the listserv’s death lap, though. One regular participant suggested that, given the group’s pending demise, it would be a good idea to get to know each other better.

It was a small thought and kind of late in the game considering the savagery some of the commenters had wreaked upon each other over the years. But the commenter forged on anyway, talking about what she has done since graduation: Turns out she is working on a national magazine, starting up an online writing community, freelancing for other online publications and considering a return to teaching. Nothing earthshaking, perhaps, but interesting and admirable nonetheless. She seemed happy, and not in a superior way.

And then a remarkable thing happened: Former combatants chimed in with their personal updates. Some were heartwarming (odds overcome, challenges won), and others were sad (personal issues, lost jobs), but all seemed offered in the spirit of connection and reconnection. As the list of detailed responses passed 100, I learned a lot about what makes people tick by reading how they’ve bounced around and still wound up moving forward.

I’m sure this type of personal introspection wasn’t part of the listserv’s original goal. It was simply an unexpected byproduct of people, most of whom knew each other only through the glow of computers or phones, wanting to reach out and touch others they assumed, or perhaps hoped, were on a similar journey.

The internet was established as a communications vehicle. But we all know that just because we’re communicating online doesn’t mean we’re actually saying anything useful. That was more often than not the case here, too.

But in the end, people wound up being inspired not by technology but by the stories technology allowed them to share.

I didn’t tell anyone my story, remaining a lurker to the bittersweet end. Maybe I should reconsider my engagement quotient, having peeped into the lives of so many others.

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Or maybe I’ll just click on over to Google and see what’s happening.

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