Learned Vol. 2, Issue 28
Raise your hand if you've heard something like this before: the beauty of the internet is that it gave everyone a voice. The terror of the internet is that it gave everyone a voice. And, tired though the idea might be, it's also kinda true, right?
The internet is the culmination of our social soapboxes. Back in the 1800s, if you had something you needed to get off your chest, you grabbed whatever platform you could and said your piece. Transporting retail goods at that time meant using slat-sided wooden boxes - they handled rough wagon trails better than cloth or paper packaging and their square forms allowed easy stacking. Taken together, this meant that, most often, the nearest, cheapest, and sturdiest speaking platform stood about 20 cm high and smelled like soap.
From there, the literal practice of standing on your soapbox evolved into the metaphorical invitation to get off your damn soapbox already. Which brings me back to the internet.
A recent Reddit thread asked something like, "what has changed the most between (when the internet was new) and now?" The most popular answers ran the expected gamut of expensive and slow to more thought-provoking responses like "we valued privacy a lot more." But one thing that did not come up, at least in my reading, was how freeing it was.
For a lot of people who have grown up with the modern internet and its walled gardens of Facebook and YouTube and everything else, I think there is a lack of understanding of just how liberating it was to be able to suddenly, overnight, go online and find a group of people who thought as you did. Whatever it was that made you different from the other people at school, or church, or at home, there were people online who were just like you and they probably had a dedicated webpage about it.
For me it was science-fiction. For anyone reading this under the age of about thirty that may not make any sense, but, for my entire adolescence and most of university, science-fiction fandom (and the attendant fantasy and comic books and comic strips and everything else) was totally not cool. But, on the internet, I could pull out my virtual soapbox and assert my opinion that Deep Space Nine is the best of all Star Treks and people could (and did, often and loudly) tell me how wrong I was.
But, the point is, I think somewhere in the past twenty years or so, we've gotten so used to everyone having their own soapbox and to having to shout to be heard over the din, we've forgotten how to be nice. Dozens of think-pieces tell us why and how and whose fault it is, but it doesn't change the fact that it's happening.
There's a possibility that I'm looking at the past through rose-colored glasses, but I don't think I am for one simple reason: I saved as much of my early digital life as I could. I have an archive of my first websites, my first few years on Twitter and Facebook, and, more importantly, all the posts and comments I made on the BBSes and Chatrooms I participated in and, you know what? People were pretty nice, most of the time. I felt good about going online. I felt like I had a voice and my own little corner of the soapbox to stand on.
I don't really feel that way anymore and I'm not sure how we fix it, but I hope we can. And soon.
From Collins Cobuild Idioms Dictionary:
on your soapbox
If someone is on their soapbox, they are giving their opinons about a subject that they feel strongly about.
Notable Events of the Year 1800
You’re reading Learned, a weekly newsletter about words and language, written by me, Joel Neff. If you like what you see, please consider subscribing:
I’ve mentioned a few of these before, here, but it’s time for a rundown of the weirdest soaps that I actually kind of want to use:
Whiskey River Soaps - not so much for the scents as for the clever packaging.
Whiskey Soap - as in, made with whiskey, because…reasons.
Beer Soap - as in, made from beer, because…other reasons.
Pickle Soap - to wash off the smell of whiskey and beer, I guess?
Bacon Soap - seems to pair nicely with the pickles.
Coffee Soap - because merely drinking coffee is no longer effective.
Chocolate Soap - enough said.
Next time: Play your cards close to the vest. That's it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.