The Collapse of Community

Jennifer Egan has an article in this week's New York Times magazine section about the growing importance of the Internet for gay teens. Especially for questioning teens growing up in small, closely-knit, and religiously anti-homosexual communities, the online world is becoming a major resource. Online, they can find the gay counterparts to the porn their straight peers can easily find in real life. Online, they can engage in the flirtation, obsession, and heartbreak straight teens can take part in without fear of violence. Online, they can escape from their communities' "No" to find others like themselves who say "Yes."

Let us be clear about what is taking place here: the Internet is eating away at the social fabric of these teens' real-life communities. They live in towns with strong social expectations, with strong ideas of right and wrong, ideas that parents are trying to pass along to their children. They live in towns held together by a complex network of formal and informal social relations, where everyone knows of everyone else and news spreads quickly. They live in towns that know what they will and won't accept of their inhabitants, where intense forces of disapproval can be summoned up to combat any socially disruptive behavior. And the Internet, like a communitarian's worst nightmare, has opened up a door from the fourth dimenson in the midst of all of this, a door these youths are eagerly stepping through, away from these social networks and away from all the social glue holding them together.

From a gay-friendly and tolerant point of view, such a claim is easy to dismiss: why should we honor the wishes of such intolerantly represssive communities? The Internet is bringing liberation to gay teens, in every positive sense of the word. That said, to focus on the benefits of that liberation without paying attention to its "costs" is a short-sighted approach, one that hurts itself most of all, by failing to consider why some people consider this liberation so threatening and what they might do to oppose it.

Consider censorware (examples drawn from this article, via Full Waffle Jacket). Almost every article debunking some piece of Internet filtering software contains a list of blocked sites, a list whose members are supposed to be so clearly unobjectionable that the intellectual futility of the filtering project should be immediatly obvious. Offroad biking sites blocked for containing the word "extreme" may be one thing, but gay and lesbian support sites are quite another. There are plenty of people out there who'd say that filtering software is working correctly when it blocks, a support group for gay and lesbian Mormons. Many people live their lives in denial of the reality of homosexuality, and if they could extend their no-homosexuals-here self-created mini-realities to the omnipresent "here" of the Internet, they would.

More sharply, the Internet promises things to gay teens against the wishes of their gay-hostile communities -- and what it promises is precisely tbe negation of the power those communities hold. To a teen discovering that his sexuality is in conflict with everything his elders are telling him, the Internet holds out the possibility of exactly that sort of radical destructiveness stereotypically assigned to the wishes of teens: to make all those authority figures just go away, to render the teen invincible against their disapproval.

It's easy to mock some of the more ontological claims of the cyberspace theorists, but looking over this issue, I find myself struck by the essence of truth within some of them. The Internet, here, is creating a separate mental and social space, one that does not exist under traditional supervision the way schools, sidewalks and malls do. Gay teens going online really are going somewhere, somewhere markedly different than the repressive homes they're logging in from. They are withdrawing from the community of their schoolmates in certain ways and substituting for it the very different connections they find online. In short, they are choosing to cut away at their citizenship in offline spaces, to reduce their involment with and allegiance to to school and state -- and, correspondingly, to cut away at the claims they allow these offline institutions to make on them.

Two thoughts emerge when looking over this situation. First, there is a tangled and dangerous issue of social and Internet policy here, and the Internet's anti-communitarian implications are only going to get more and more important. One crucial component in these teens' sexual self-discovery has been the ready availability of gay porn online, and I know of no position in tbe censorware debate able to face up to this fact without flinching. None, not even my own. In another direction, with Napster, copyright didn't suddenly come unglued from physical restrictions: it suddenly came unglued from social restrictions. Whether for good or for bad, the Internet greases social interactions, makes things go more easily but start to lose their grip.

And second, the specific effects may be new, but almost nothing in this story is specific to the Internet. There's another transition in the history of humanity that exposed some of these tensions, that held out the prospect of a new geographic space, one free of the tightly-knit bonds of community, a transition far more important than the Internet revolution, one that's been going on for millennia and is still taking place; I refer, of course, to the rise of cities.

You could call the city the proto-Internet, if you want: compared with rural agricultural or nomadic life, the city is a place of improbable juxtapositions, where everything is on top of everything else, where you can find anything you want if you know how to look for it. The city is a place of anonymity, where you can escape the consequences of your actions because the collective memory and gossip don't follow you in the same way, where you can try on new identities to see if they fit. The city is a place of sudden fortunes and opportunity, of hidden communities of the downtrodden, of new-found social energy and turmoil. The city, forever associated with depravity and corruption in the minds of country folk, has always appealed to the country's youth and its malcontents precisely because they saw something worth finding within that depravity and corruption, or just because it was something new. The city is wild, uncontrollable, dense beyond belief, unmappable, unknowable. The city was the model for the Internet, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the Internet is the city's latest and greatest achievment in its campaign to hold sway over all of humanity. The Internet is the triumph of the urban mindset: the final liberation of all that the city stands for from the physical confines of the city itself.

For the questioning teens in small Southern towns could not go to the city, and so the city has gone to them. This is the missing context in Egan's article (or so it seems to me, with my somewhat limited knowledge of the history of the gay rights movement and the social history of homosexuality): she considers carefully the differences in the options open to gay and straight teens, so that her narrative is one of the ways in which gay teens can now achive a somewhat more "typical" teenage experience, and the ways in which their online (and online-inspired) gay experiences still differ from their peers' offline ones. Missing from this analysis (along with any discussion of how the Internet is changing straight teens' exploration of their sexuality) is any sense of history: what's new here, and what isn't?

America's major cities have had thriving, if hidden, gay subcultures for long before the Internet. Reading her write about the confusingly anonymous world of chat rooms, about the assumed and dropped identities, about the confusion and heartbreak these kids feel, about the tricky questions of age they juggle, I found myself asking, again and again, to what extent gays and lesbians discovering each other on the Internet are recapitulating the experience of gays and lesbians discovering each other in New York and San Francisco ten, twenty-five, or fifty years ago. How much does chat-room pseudonymity resemble bathhouse anonymity? Is the experience of teens who are out only online different from that of teens who are out only in the letters they write each other? Are the gay online communities Egan writes about fragile and wary because they are gay, or because they are online? (I suspect both, but Egan doesn't provide the evidence to properly consider the question.)

Or, perhaps, is there something profoundly similar about the "gay" and the "online" components to this question? Perhaps the trends Egan writes about have taken root because something in the disruptive but liminally creative nature of the Internet and its communitarian effects that itself recalls similar themes in the gay experience? We have here a social phenomenon that breaks down certain traditional assumptions about identity, that allows people to lead doubled existences, that prides itself on its ability to bring like together with like, that makes community out of shared knowledge and experience rather than geographical proximity, that punches through holes in a repressive reality, that many conservatives find deeply troubling, that grapples ambivalently with its sexual undercurrents. Meet the Internet: it's here, it's queer. Get used to it.

My usual pattern, no? 1) The Internet is fascinating, but 2) there's nothing new here, and 3) someone else is being dumb about it. As for my own doubled existence, some things I say more openly than others. 10'12'00