11.6.08

What Is The What?

I don't think I've ever revealed my name anywhere on this blog. It's Alex Alsup, anyway. I'm not sure why I never mentioned that - I suppose some combination of trepidation of putting it out there publicly and appreciating the cloak of anonymity that most bloggers wear.

But there's no point. I mean, we all have blogs because we want a book deal, or so I'm told. And Viking Press can't make my check out to "The Skillman." Furthermore, as Benjamin Kunkel of n+1 posited at a panel at The Kitchen last night (the discussion was on the state of the internet) if I'm going to write "Anderson Cooper, you fucking moron," shouldn't Cooper have the chance to call me something by name as well? In my case, yes, Cooper should have that chance, though I'm sure he won't make use of it. But I disagree with Kunkel that the incongruity between the anonymous commenter and the identified commented-upon is a uniformally bad equation.

There are at least two species of anonymous internet commenters; the people who do the good democratic work at places like Wikipedia and rarely drop a name beside it, and those who pepper the NY Times, Gawker, TPM, and so on, message boards with mostly vitriolic comments and zero accountability. To these categories I would add a third species with a tiny population; the anonymous commenter as superhero.

New York Magazine published an article on May 25 titled "The What You Are Afraid Of" about an anonymous commenter, named, The What, who terrorizes the "yuppie scum" clientele of the Brooklyn-centered orgy-site of real estate news, and gentrification's standard-bearer, Brownstoner.com.

The What posts things like, "BUT WHEN U FREGAN YUPPIE ARE HANGING OUT IN FRONT OF THE BARS SMOKIN UR F!@#KIN CIGS> NOT CARING ABOUT THE PEOPLE THAT HAVE TO WAKE UP AT 7 AM TO GO TO WORK. KEEP THE NOISE DOWN CAUSE WHEN GET WATER THROWN ON YOU THEN YOU HAVE A REASON TO BE LOUD." Read the article to understand the full scope of his wrath.

The What is a rare case, no doubt, and I know of no other online entity like him that, depending on your feelings towards Brownstoner, comes as close to anonymous superhero (yes) or supervillain (no) status. The unfocused, random anger of postings on most blogs and websites does not amount to supervillainy, at most it is petty crime - minor vandalism. But anonymity is not in all cases an unfair power wielded by the online commenter, it is just a generally abused power.

Back a little bit before the internet a guy named Thomas Paine released a pamphlet (an old thing kind of like a blog post, but you could hold it) called "Common Sense" and signed it, "An Englishman." In the hands of a patriot, anonymity is a powerful, and sometimes necessary, tool. Of course, one man's patriot is another man's radical revolutionary. But anonymity is fragile, even amongst the mind-boggling Googleish algorithms of the internet. So how is it preserved, and what happens, and what does it look like, when it is betrayed?

My roommate and I discussed the NY Mag article and both settled on a feeling that writing about The What, even without revealing his "true" identity, served to destroy The What.

Comic book historian Gerard Jones wrote in the LA Times a while back, "Superman insisted that his work as a hero must end if the truth were exposed. Why? Why not just be superhuman in public?" The pragmatic response is usually something about how knowing, say, Batman's identity as Bruce Wayne, would make it possible for the bad guys to "get at" the people he cared about. But it has to be more than that.

I asked my rommate why some superheroes needed anonymity. We discussed it for a while and seemed to circle around a lot of the standard ideas about superhero anonymity. But when we changed tactics and took on the concept of The What's anonymity, my rommate nailed it: If The What is identified as, say, Mike Smith, "then we attribute all of Mike Smith's traits and characteristics to 'The What' and Mike Smith can't possibly live up to the abstract... character that is 'The What.'" Or, as my roommate went on to say, "nobody wants to think about Spiderman doing his laundry."

But The What was not, in fact, identified - NY Mag never figured his name, or, if they did, they didn't publish it. So why do my roommate and I still feel his power was diminished by the article? For insight I'd turn to The Simpsons. In the episode "Bart's Inner Child" a self-help "guru" comes to Springfield and convinces the citizens that they can cure whatever ails them by living like Bart Simpson who says - "I do what I feel like."

Everyone does what they feel, the town goes to shit, and Bart goes to Lisa and asks, "Lis, everyone in town is acting like me. So why does it suck?" Lisa responds, "It's simple, Bart: you've defined yourself as a rebel, and in the absence of a repressive milieu your societal nature's been co-opted." The What can trace, should he care to, or if he believes it to be as true as my roommate and I do, his downfall to the same phenomenon.

Go on Brownstoner now and anonymous comment-zing-bombing the gentrifiers is rampant. Is this success for The What? An army of anonymous posters who make Brownstoner an inhospitable horror zone? Or does it turn him into a brand-name, his tagline to every post - "Someday this war's gonna end" - a commercial jingle? Or, another possibility, does The What feel his celebrity stolen away, is he tempted to grab the limelight back, make himself known and declare, as Ghostface Killah said in "Apollo Kids," "Punk fa**ot ni**as stealin' my light!" Which would, of course, be superhero suicide. But he'd get the credit.

All internet superheroes are destined for destruction. The superhero will be found out, as that is what the internet guarantees, and, even if not identified, the mongrel hordes will invade his milieu and his potency will dissipate. But that does not mean the superhero should not try. Probably all charismatic leaders are doomed from the start, internet or not. But there is space for the anonymous superhero commenter. It's just ill-defined and requires an attention span longer than most are willing to devote.

I mean, like Thomas Paine, I was really into democracy, but then it became all about the people.

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