Of all the media-related, geeky things my friends have wished I would shut up about—well, at least until Frozen came out, and omitting my obsession with Mass Effect’s krogan race, which I am slowly getting under control—the one that gets the most play over the last couple years has been my YouTube obsessions. I couldn’t put a timer on exactly when they started taking over my online life, because I don’t really talk about either of them in public, but I’d say probably about two years.
The first is the full-on genius Aaron Yonda and the rest of his loveable, Wisconsin-based Blame Society collective, whose Beer & Board Games series in particular has radically changed my view of geek stuff and is probably indirectly to blame for this column. They are unrepentant and often unreconstructed, but always worth a look. Really smart, funny stuff.
The second is Jacksfilms’ Jack Douglass, whose Your Grammar Sucks series in particular is and has been a highlight of my week for a long time now. I have it to thank for my interest in the YouTube culture at all, thanks to Jack’s cleverness and clear joy in what he’s doing. I’m not one for grammar thugs in general—nearly always a clumsy attempt to get control of a conversation, just like calling out people’s privilege or any other evasive maneuver—but the subject itself is a fascinating pretext for Douglass’s performance.
It’s a fairly simple idea—a young man reads poorly constructed or spelled YouTube comments, in a delighted and delightful manner—that in less intelligent or compassionate hands would seem crude at best, and class-based menacing at worst.
A few minutes in the charming company of either channel will easily explain the devotion of their huge fan groups far better than I ever could. It’s new and interesting work, with an improvised genius that is more sparkling conversation rather than comedic performance, which is part of what’s so exciting about what they’re doing: Only in a world where the intimacy of YouTube is a norm could these particular kinds of art and humor flourish, and that’s exciting to me.
But that’s not what I want to talk about, I just wanted you to know about those guys because I love them with my whole heart, and because it’s how I got to what I want to talk to you about today: The “5ever” or “cri evertim” meme, which peaked in about 2011 and is often copy-pasted under random YouTube videos to this day. Like any meme, the half-life was really short and now it’s just a thing people do, but the basic idea is a terribly-written love story that makes barely any sense and ends with a request for thumbs up to demonstrate that you, in fact, cry every time you read the story.
I don’t really have a head for memes and I would only find it funny if it hopped out of nowhere—although the real-world equivalent, Sad YouTube, is blisteringly brilliant and often very touching for real—but it did get me thinking about the base assumptions we bring to comments and Twitter in particular, and, depending on the site and subject, how revelatory those assumptions actually are.
When you run across an aggressive, poorly spelled defense of Eminem or Nicki Minaj, or One Direction, you probably are okay assuming certain things—youth, illiteracy, emotional problems—but it’s a lot harder to remember what you’re assuming when you see a certain kind of comment brought to the table about, say, race or gender. Actual topics with actual weight, requiring—we proceed with question—actual vehemence in our reply.
But the thing about responding to text-only conversations—and this is thrillingly important, because our lives are already about text-only conversations and will only get more that way from here to the end of time—is that a lot gets left to the imagination and we, not unlike the Hunger Games racists of yore, are often very set in what our imagination allows.
Imagine a woman responding to an article about women in the workplace, without giving a signifier of her gender—or even worse, supplying details of her own financial success—before offering a contrasting view. Or a gay man (all the time with this one) criticizing his own community in a comments field ruled by straight “allies” (to say nothing of criticizing the privileged behaviors of those “allies” themselves, which is the ugliest and most common thing of all). Or a black woman discussing race without first clarifying for us her own. In any case, the next responses will be accusations hurled, privilege checked, wounded soldiers reporting for duty, and the whole nine: How dare you come into our conversation, you… Youuuu…
Straight white man. Obviously, because the default voice of all text is that of straight white men, and because it’s more fun to call somebody out than to double-check their bona fides. Or even think about doing so.
Working in the forums moderation business, which I have for over a decade, you see a lot of patterns. Some of them funny, most of them regrettable, a few mind-blowing (and no less so for their strange frequency), but most of all this, and it’s changed the way I read anything. It takes zero time at all to strike out at a fellow anonymous commenter for their perceived presumptions, and a whole lot of time to rectify that situation.
Nearby, you have the confirmation bias of thread length, which plays into this sometimes: Say you like a TV character and you go to the internet to talk about that TV character. The thread you find has maybe three responses in it. All of them, or even the majority of them (two of them) are negative toward the character. You feel shouted down, in this virtual room, and make your first pronouncement as loudly, obnoxiously, and ad-hominemly as possible, and why? Because the whole world is against you.
It is very hard to remember in this moment that we are, in fact, talking about exactly two people. Neither of whom are “against you” in any recognizable way.
So returning to our case of mistaken identity, then, we have a situation in which you—hero to the masses, now victimized by this strange white man disagreeing with you about matters of race—decide that you have been given full access to your rage, and cut loose on the guy. And then you’re told, crisply if not equally as angrily, that you’re now in the well-meaning but very unflattering position of telling a black woman—or a gay man—their business.
My question is, how many times does this need to happen to you before you stop reading and responding to everything in the default Oppressor’s Voice? And the answer seems to be, infinite times. Even if you don’t reply, even if you show that much self-control, is that because of the chance that you might be misreading the person’s demographic based on a few words? I think not, I think it’s because you’ve got better things to do than start internet shit, and good on you. But you still hear it wrong, and that keeps going.
This fascinates me to no end, because in effect what you’ve done is prove your point, by making yourself the victim of it. The reasons behind the fact that you hear a white man’s authoritative voice yelling at you are perfectly valid, which is the issue you’re fighting against. But friendly fire is never necessary, and it’s my belief that you could do more for the world by adjusting your frequency to one that allows the existence of other people, beyond the default.
The perennial conversation about women in the gaming industry, for example, is one that results almost instantly in a preach-to-the-choir, because women are used to being told what is up by men and men are used to thinking that they are right, and not being jerks. It is true that any single man is only a jerk sometimes, and that any single man therefore has the prerogative of seeing himself as something other than one with jerkiness as his main trait in life.
Bringing women into the conversation, with their “real-life experiences” and “understanding of the complex and threatening sexual dynamics that men have the privilege of ignoring in everyday life,” then, becomes simply a reason to double down with the MRA nonsense, acting like a jerk since you’re going to get called one either way. No matter how Nice a Guy you believe yourself to be.
It’s horrible—and we can spot you from a mile away regardless—but the process is at least understandable: It all comes down (in internet conversation, which is by definition performed by bystanders, at their leisure, rather than the players in the actual oppressive acts) to skipping right over the identity of the person who’s talking, and right into who’s getting the horns for it. Because we like to elect ourselves as speaking on behalf of the downtrodden, because nobody can call you out for being a big hero, this leads directly down the slippery slope of actually feeling oppressed on somebody else’s behalf. At which point nobody worth reaching is listening anymore, because we can spot those from a mile away too.
Where it gets me, though, is if you take this to its terminus—that all statements online are not only directly attributable to villainy by default, but by default also directed squarely between your eyes—than it’s no wonder we seem to feel so oppressed by everything. When the whole world is constantly calling you out, or putting you down, the only sane response is to walk into every room screaming. The only possible way to root out this devilish influence is to constantly read one another—like Scientologists; bearing copies of the Malleus Maleficarum under our arms—for the hidden signs of taint and evil by which we know the enemy.
Trouble is, the only people you’re going to be having this conversation with—in any approximation of good faith—are people that agree with you. At which point it’s just Mean Girling, score-ranking nonsense; straw-man arguments and personal grievances. Which is exciting for the people involved, for sure, but in part that’s because we know—like kids playing sandlot soldiers, when the streetlights come on and it’s time to head home—there will always be more to fight about tomorrow. You can cri evertim; you can always come back later to cry some more.
I recently read another article about this that referred to these implications on the Left as being a sort of “Calvinism without God,” and I think that’s exactly right: A conversation honestly meant to create change has room for both speakers. No sheep, no goats, no heaven, no hell. That’s hard to do when one or both of us is playing the part of the Grand Inquisitor; when one or both of us is on trial for things we never said and don’t believe. There has got to be a better way; our current solution is no less foolish than assuming a fifty-year-old Congressman or CEO wrote this or that hateful, illiterate One Direction tweet.
Or as my friend Xarissa put it, after reading this brilliantly compassionate and incisive Nation piece, “When we’re all witches, friendly fire becomes a distinct possibility.” Sounds like a happy ending, but even moreso a good place to start saving the world:
If we’re all witches, then there’s nobody left to burn.
Jacob Clifton is a freelance writer and critic based in Austin, Texas. He currently recaps The Good Wife, True Detective, The Blacklist, Ravenswood, and Pretty Little Liars for TWoP. Jacob can be found online at jacobclifton.com, Twitter, and Facebook.