Let me take you to the past. I was living below the poverty line in a town that, as far as New York was concerned, did not exist. I hadn’t had any coffee yet, none whatsoever. I heard Lena Dunham had a book out. I got on Twitter and attributed a bunch of old-time 19th century jargon to it. I almost deleted it out of shame. Then, for an afternoon, it exploded Republican Twitter.
But that was a long time ago (five months ago) and I was a different person. I have since purchased a cowboy hat, which changes a man; forces him to speak in movie quotes and say things like “circle up the wagons, boys!” for no reason. And the longer I’ve owned that cowboy hat, the more alienating the whole Lena Dunham fiasco has become. My biggest claim to internet micro-notoriety is an obtuse joke about a pretend person in New York and here I am spending most of my free time in that hat practicing a Tennessee Ernie Ford impression. The cognitive dissonance aggravates me, so I have a policy against doing a joke like that again.
And last night I roundly violated that policy.
Wow. Ello's home page got dark in a hurry. pic.twitter.com/KddyjCa7do
— Kaleb Horton (@kalebhorton) March 5, 2015
Here’s how this joke works. It’s pretty simple. You know what Ello is? Okay, great, but hold on. Just in case you’re reading this two or three months after it was written, during which time the events of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior will have become reality, I’ll be thorough. We used to have these things called “social networking sites,” which were a way for people who had been rendered immobile by the decline of the middle class to simulate social interaction. Facebook was the popular one, but it had advertisements. Ello was one of many unpopular ones, and it made this big punk rock demonstration of telling you it was minimalist and had no advertisements at all.
Ello was fine. It wasn’t hurting anybody. But it had a manifesto, and manifesto is a funny word with dark connotations. So I took a screenshot of the manifesto page and replaced the original one, which said things like “you are not a product,” with an alarming and confrontational version of my own devising. In case you can’t blow up the Twitter pic above, it reads:
We gave you a chance. We offered you ad-free social networking.
We were kind. We were honest. We doted on your mothers and from a distance we respected the quiet dignity of your fathers, whose lives were so hard.
We loved you as we would love blood relatives.
We kept you away from the targeted advertising rackets. We never let you know what our world is like. We protected you from knowing what SEO means.
But you betrayed us. You mocked us. Humiliated us. Treated us like dogs.
Judas betrayed Christ for thirty pieces of cowardly silver yet he was brilliant compared to you. You, who betrayed us for no earthly reward. None at all.
We are not weak, you know. Politeness is not weakness.
We will come for you. We will bide our time and let you forget that we are coming for you. And then we will find you; find you in a vulnerable moment in a lonesome place; find you on the ocean; find you in the desert.
And the way you live will change on that day.
You will live the way traitors live.
This became just as popular as the Lena Dunham joke, and was in equal measure (maybe 20% of the replies) regarded as utterly genuine. I can rationalize why some believed the Dunham gag; the news cycle is a monster which eats truth as quickly as it eats lies. But this one made no sense. I didn’t copy and paste obsolete prose this time. I just made up some villainous dialogue. Why would any organization put “Judas betrayed Christ for thirty pieces of cowardly silver” in their mission statement? Cults don’t even say that. They dance around it, even at their most murderous.
I’ll spare you the ritual of pointing to the egregious replies and laughing at them. I don’t want to steal Jay Leno’s act anymore. But at some point a lot of legitimate types who looked like they made $100,000 a year – people who put “Social Media Professional” in their Twitter bios and live in the Bay Area – started treating this nonsense like an actual scoop. They legitimately, if fleetingly, believed Ello might end its mission statement by saying “you will live the way traitors live.”
Now, the internet remains one big abstraction to me. I’m the only one in my family who meaningfully uses it. I still read all internet writing in my monotone inner voice, without conviction or hastiness, without fear or anger. But lately I’ve come to value that as a moral exercise. I have to get my philosophy consistent, and treat real and virtual social interactions as equal, to engage the internet without going crazy from the ambiguity. Five months ago, I would have ridiculed all those legitimate types for believing a word I said. Then I would have belligerently asked all of them for money. But I wouldn’t do that to a flesh and blood human being, so I didn’t do it this time. I wanted to make their day worse, wanted it so bad my chest tightened up and my breath got shallow, but for once I chose to leave them alone, and that’s a start.