Some Internet Playground Tribes

I don’t think human brains are very good at dealing with plurality. Above the numbers of our fingers and toes, it’s all a bit of a blur, so the millions of people that we share our nations with are too overwhelming to conceive of. I suspect this is the reason populous nations fracture into smaller clans: Northerners and Southerners, middle and working class, and so on. These groups often express intense hostility to others of their own nationality.  

There are, apparently, more than 4 billion internet users. All through social media’s turbid churn, colonies of like-minded individuals cohere, cling to each other for a while, and then disperse. 

For example, my daughter is a fan of a K-pop band called Seventeen. Her allies are spread around the world – Korea, China, Japan, The U.S.A. They have given themselves a clan name (“Carrots”, for some reason) and when recounting their latest victories in the culture wars, my daughter always talks about “we”. “Who is ‘we’?” I ask, mystified, “your friends at school?” “No, the other Carrots,” comes the reply. 

Their identity is partly formed by their oppositions: they are constantly at war with the fans of other K-pop groups. They, and other tribes, delight in roaming the internet, roasting their opponents in running, verbal firefights. The quick-fire put-down is their most valued line of dialogue. 

Because the internet is supposed to be the playground of egalitarian, liberal values, the preferred weaponry of all these tribes is the language of outraged grievance. They accuse the bands, and each other, of racism, white privilege, cultural appropriation, homophobia, trans-phobia, etc. etc. None of these accusations have any substance to them at all[1]. No matter how serious and important the original ideas, they have been reduced to empty insults to be hurled at your enemies. 

So clearly unfounded are these accusations that Meggie and I wondered if those making them were actually right-wing agent provocateurs trying to discredit the civil rights movements that coined the terms. 

In fact, this is probably just another example of the corruption of truth and language caused by the internet. Unmoored from any real-world referents, words only refer to themselves. The best we can hope for is a vague assertion of self: “I defy and disdain you, fans of BTS, for I am a Carrot!”

I think this is also how groups like QAnon work. They can’t truly believe in a secret society of Democrat paedophiles – it’s implausible. There’s absolutely no evidence for it and they don’t seem to be interested in producing any. I think they are hurling insults and accusations at their enemies, and “paedophile” retains a certain insulting charge, although, online, where there are no verifiable truths, it no longer means somebody who literally sexually abuses children. It just means “somebody who is (in my opinion) despicable.” 

By voicing these opinions, they are also affirming their tribal identity, precisely because they are still only held by a small minority, mercifully. Anyway, in the fact-free, online world, accusations and insults are merging. Both are just horrible things to say about people. The students I work with often say, “He looks like a paedophile”, which doesn’t mean they think he is one. They are just enjoying saying something nasty. 


[1] How, for instance, can an East-Asian Band, with an East-Asian fan-base be displaying white privilege?

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