Short Cuts

Jenny Diski

The word ‘resources’ sets my spine tingling. My old hippy-but-curmudgeonly soul had high hopes of the World Wide Web. The future, in some respects, was living up to expectations, providing videotapes of movies you didn’t have to leave home to see again, music remastered to a complexity not heard even in the concert hall let alone your own bath; and now here was a space that couldn’t be pictured, and didn’t require going out to be in, where minds from anywhere on the planet, full of knowledge and knowhow, wit and wondering, could chatter together, collaborate, pass information and the time of day. The internet would be a planetary depository, freely available, a dream library of everything. Borges and Brautigan thought of it but never fully imagined the weird airiness of its actuality.

So it has turned out: Project Gutenberg puts great texts freely online, Google plans to digitise the universe (which makes some people’s spines tingle for quite different reasons), Wikipedia has users collating and collaborating to explain everything, and everywhere bloggers are witnessing the world, one hundred million of them. But in no time at all, abundance became too much. The noise is deafening. The best of the planet did not exclude the worst of the planet. The internet filled up with garbage, and the good stuff sank to the bottom. I gave up, being of a giving-up nature.

Some, however, unlike me, weren’t techno-idiots wanting only to consume the web, and didn’t give up. Metafilter.com was set up in 1999 by the programmer Matthew Haughey, as a place where people could put links to the good stuff they found on the web. He describes it as a special kind of group weblog that ‘exists to break down the barriers between people, to extend a weblog beyond just one person, and to foster discussion among its members’. It’s a rare treat. Members, using screen names, post about any website that has merit, or contribute a series of links around a tasty topic for other members to look at and discuss. Once you’ve found MetaFilter it’s hard not to return to it. ‘Kattullus’ posts links to Sean Bonney’s new concrete-poetry translations of Baudelaire, as well as a review of the book and an MP3 of Bonney reading some of them. The debate raged for several days; praise, wit, fury and alternative suggestions flew. ‘Zardoz’ links to intense arguments about an airplane taxiing in one direction on a moving conveyer going in the other. Can the plane ever take off? ‘Mwongzi’ points to a US soldier’s video diary of Basra; ‘vronsky’ has found a site where 38 different versions of Weill’s ‘September Song’ can be heard; ‘frobozz’ offers a collection of sites obsessed with grammatical righteousness, including a photograph of a graffito where the phrase ‘Anarky For Ever’ has been corrected with professional proof-marks on the wall.

Alternatively, if you have a practical problem, there’s the Ask MetaFilter sub-site, which allows members to post a question, then sit back and wait for the hive mind to come up with a solution, or dozens. ‘Paradroid’ wants to know how to stain a colony of bacteria so he can make relative measurements of their genome size, without harming them in the process. Nineteen-year-old ‘Alexplainlater’ wants to know where and how to start getting life experience; ‘Mblue’ wants help figuring out why his brake light won’t go off. Very few questions go unanswered, partly because these days there are upwards of fifty thousand members.

For me, another sub-site, MetaTalk, is the most interesting place. It’s the back room, where long-term and committed members discuss what is going on in MetaFilter; how the site is run and being used. Haughey’s original idea was that MetaFilter would be self-policing. Members themselves would keep the standard high and the crap out, by making it painfully clear in their responses when a post wasn’t good enough or a stupid comment was derailing the conversation. But it was always Haughey’s website and he had the final veto. His introductory spiel has a paternal ring to it:

I trust that you’ll act in a civilised manner, that you’ll treat others with opposing viewpoints with absolute respect, that you’ll contribute in a positive way to the intelligent discussions that take place here every day. I give you the benefit of the doubt, because I trust you, so all that I ask is for you to honour that trust and promise to become a good contributor.

It’s not quite defined, but a good contribution is one you know when you see it, or one that doesn’t die through contemptuous comments from other members. But as the numbers increased, self-policing began to break down; newcomers arrived and didn’t respect the rules or get the ethos. MetaFilter started to become more of a bear pit. In 2004, Haughey brought in two moderators, ‘jessamyn’ and ‘cortex’, to help him check posts and comments, and to delete or close to further comment those they decide aren’t good enough. He programmed in a facility for members to flag items they object to, for the moderators to consider, though the final decision to delete or close a thread always lies with Haughey and his team. A one-off membership fee of $5, to ward off drive-by commenters, was also added, but essentially you are a guest in Matt’s house.

‘Community’ is a word much used by both members and administrators. Sometimes MetaTalk explodes with the ancient debate about what the word means in practice. When one member announced he was leaving because he objected to someone else’s post being shut down by the moderators, his post was closed to further comment. This occasioned another thread, in which some complained about the apparent arbitrariness of recent closures. Others said no discussion was necessary. ‘It’s not whether the rule is fair or unfair,’ one contributor said:

It’s that you either accept it or you don’t. If you accept it, you can be a member of the group. If you don’t accept it, why do you want to be a member of the group? And so announcing that you’re quitting some group because they won’t change to accept your way of doing things is a really, really stupidly, um, misfit thing to do.

My unresolved-authority-problem hackles jangled at ‘misfit’, then positively clanked when, in the same thread, ‘Mickey’ (known to be on medication for a bipolar condition and/or personality disorder) interrupted the discussion too often with irrelevant and infuriating comments, and Haughey banned him permanently from the site. Same old Foucauldian world, same old authoritarian community that expels rather than absorbs its inconvenient members. Of course, I know there are limits to how much disruption any group can tolerate (I’ve expelled a few intolerables myself), but it doesn’t mean I like it: it made me angry in that old-fashioned, anarky for ever way, before it made me sad. It’s not the fault of MetaFilter, or its administrators; just what happens when people try to build towers. The ideas are marvellous, the practicalities much harder to control, and in addition something nebulous gets in the way. In Babel’s case it was God; in real life, and even on the internet, it’s some intractable tension between freedom and function.

Lately, there’s been a discussion about MetaTalk on MetaTalk, which some people think shouldn’t be over-promoted on the main pages and should stay the minority site for MetaFilter geeks that it is. Only 5 per cent of the membership ever looks at the site. This strikes ‘stavrosthewonderchicken’, as well as me, as a mistake. He says, ‘same as democracy itself, the value is (and should be) in the process, not in the result.’ Though it’s true that psychoanalytic theory has not much improved the practical reality of the world, it has provided a place where people can discuss the difficulties human beings have in getting things right. MetaTalk may be the talking cure of MetaFilter.