ReelThoughts: October 11, 2011

"The Anti-Social Network"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


My first encounter with the Internet occurred in September 1985. When I started in the University of Pennsylvania's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, I was given something called an "e-mail address." Despite being a card-carrying geek, I didn't know what it was and wasn't interested in finding out since using it required a trip to the always-busy computer center. Professors encouraged us to log in to our e-mail account, saying they would provide homework assignments there. But they handed them out in class as well, so what was the incentive? My interest in the Internet changed during my junior year when I learned there was more to the Internet than e-mail. Upon discovery of the Usenet newsgroups, the early precursor of all on-line social interaction, I began spending more time in the computer center. There were newsgroups devoted to movies, TV, Star Trek, science fiction, fantasy, and (of course) porn.

My interest in the Internet faded during the 1989-1990 academic year - the year I was doing my graduate work. For the first time, I had a computer in my room (it was a brand-new "IBM clone" 386 machine). No on-line capabilities, not even dial-up, but that was an era in which the Internet remained a novelty. Computers were primarily used for word processing, spreadsheets, and games. With those three elements at my fingertips, there was no compelling reason to visit the computer center, although I dropped in from time-to-time to check my e-mail (or when I had a programming assignment requiring the use of Assembly Language, FORTRAN, or C). By 1990, although the Internet was still the province of geeks, it was gradually expanding. That year, Penn gave all students - not just those in the Engineering school - e-mail addresses. I often wondered whether any art history majors used theirs.

The next step in on-line evolution was the expansion of the World Wide Web. By the time I discovered that - courtesy of a co-worker at Bellcore - I was a power Usenet user. Not only did I have Internet access at the office, but I had it at home, courtesy of a dial-up service called GEnie. Having unfettered access to the newsgroups afforded more freedom than at work, where it wouldn't do to be caught reading a review of the latest episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation when the boss walked in. The World Wide Web added graphics to the previously text-only on-line world, and revolutionized things. In 1991, the graphics weren't impressive, and the browsers (I used Mosiac) were clunky. But that, like everything, changed at a pace to make the advances of the last hour obsolete.

When I began writing reviews in late 1991/early 1992, I did it for personal reasons - as a writing exercise. I never intended for anyone to read them other than me. A co-worker found out what I was doing and encouraged me to make them available on the internal company bulletin board, so I did that. (Anyone remember local bulletin boards?) After a one-year trial with a limited audience, I took the plunge and posted my first review to the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.movies. (It was also picked up on the moderated rec.arts.movies.reviews.) For the first time, something I had written was world-wide.

The Usenet newsgroups (at least the unmoderated ones) were like today's forums. Someone would post a topic and others would reply. The level of civility was high. People were generally polite and criticisms were specific. Hard as it may be to believe today, there was a time when posters were almost universally nice. Different era. If that hadn't been the case, my lifespan as a movie reviewer might have been short-lived. It takes a while to build up a thick skin and develop confidence in one's opinions. For me, it wasn't there in 1992, 1993, or even 1994. When people disagreed with me - which was often - they would explain the areas of disagreement in civil, coherent posts. I would respond to those. They would reply, as would others. Discussions were productive. For me, the early '90s was the time when the Internet truly was the "Social Network." The nastiness was lurking but it hadn't yet escaped. That happened when the World Wide Web expanded beyond universities and businesses.

It was in the early 1990s that the Internet Movie Database debuted. Initially, it was precisely what the name describes it to be - a searchable database. The way it worked was that a user would send an e-mail to the database's address with the name of an actor, actress, or director in the subject line, and it would auto-return a filmography for that person. Alternatively, the entire database (which was large but not huge) could be downloaded and run locally. Once IMDb was available on the web, it expanded quickly. I was using it as an invaluable resource as early as 1993.

The mid-'90s saw a rapid growth of the Internet and a gradual shift in tone away from the chummy community of the early days to a colder, more angry place. It was around this time that I started getting hate mail and the responses to my reviews at rec.arts.movies (now renamed rec.arts.movies-current) had grown increasingly contentious. Usenet was becoming irrelevant in light of the expansion of the World Wide Web. Users were interested in graphics, not text. People in search of porn wanted pictures and crude 30-second movies, not stories. Style over substance. Content overcome by visual appeal.

I started ReelViews in January 1996 while snowbound during the biggest snow storm ever to hit New Jersey. I dumped GEnie for an ISP, increased the dial-up speed of my modem (to 28.8 bps), learned html, and started converting all my text reviews. The site went live at the end of January and evolved by fits and starts over the next few years. It was initially called "James Berardinelli's Movie Review Page." I changed it to ReelViews late in the year after trying for more than a month to come up with something catchy. After five years of providing content and comment fodder, I opted out of the Usenet newsgroups in early 1998. The viciousness of the tone, the constant bombardment of spam to the unmoderated groups, and the presence of ReelViews made it an easy decision to cut the cord.

It was 1997 when the studios finally recognized me. It took about three years of lobbying (I started in 1994) to persuade them that I was in fact legitimate. This was a pre-blog era and no one in any studio knew anything about the Internet. I might as well have been talking a different language. Every conversation went like this...

JB: I'd like to get on your press list. How would I go about doing that?
Studio Rep: As long as we can verify that you're genuine, we'd love to have you. Are you broadcast or print?
JB: Neither. I'm on-line.
Studio Rep: What paper do you write for?
JB: None. I'm on-line.
Studio Rep: Sorry, I didn't get that.
JB: {Short explanation of what the Internet is for the technologically challenged.}
Studio Rep: Uh, okay. I'm not sure we accredit those sorts of writers. Send me a sample.

Finally, in 1997, I encountered someone who knew what the Internet was, agreed to read a few sample reviews, and was willing to log onto my site. The accreditation came soon after. Now I could go to movies on weeknights before they opened rather than seeing five every weekend.

By about 2000, my time on the cutting edge was ending. Websites were becoming mainstream. The computer screen was for my mornings what the paper had been for my father and grandparents. I have memories of them sitting at the breakfast table, eating English muffins with jam, cereal, and sliced grapefruit, and drinking coffee while perusing The New York Times. For me, it was cereal and coffee and a web edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The end of the millennium represented the time when I was the most obsessive about responding to e-mail. It's a good thing, because it was March of 2001 when I received an unsolicited e-mail from a fan named Sheryl who wanted to talk about the demands of being a film critic. It was a long missive and I responded with something equally verbose. Back-and-forth went the e-mails, sometimes as many as four in a day. Then came phone calls, a face-to-face meeting in August, a trip to the Toronto Film Festival in September, flights for me to Chicago (where she lived) and her to New Jersey almost monthly, a December 2002 engagement, and an August 2004 wedding. This was back when the concept of meeting someone on-line was arcane. When we told our story, old-school people thought it was creepy. Today, it's commonplace. Many couples meet and fall in love on-line. We were just a little ahead of the curve. Our son will probably think of it as being hopelessly old fashioned.

Blogs started. I didn't convert ReelViews into one - the reviews maintained their straightforward presence - but I added ReelThoughts. For a while, I didn't call it a blog (an ugly, ungainly word), but a rose by any other name... It has always been a playground for writing about pretty much anything. There have been times when I'll go a month without adding anything new and occasions when there would be frequent posts. I fit ReelThoughts into my schedule as time allows. Typically, there's an inverse relationship between the number of reviews I write and the frequency with which I add ReelThoughts.

Today, e-mail and blogs are passÚ. It's all about social media - Facebook and Twitter and a bunch of wannabes and maysomedaybes. In a general sense, I have been aware of social media since its infancy with Friendster and MySpace. Those sites, like the bigger, badder Facebook, are little more than a slick repackaging of existing web functionality with a user-friendly fašade. The advantage of using Facebook instead of creating a website is simplicity. It's the ultimate dumbing down of the Internet and it has contributed to degrading an already nasty tone into one that is downright vile. Yes, that's an overgeneralization and it ignores the many positives of Facebook, but when people have committed suicide because of hateful on-line postings, how else is one supposed to react? Now, protected by the illusion of anonymity, bullies can roam unfettered. "Let all the poison that lurks in the mud hatch out."

I have dipped my foot in the social media pool by getting a Twitter account. I use it mainly to announce new reviews. Occasionally, however, I "tease" films I have seen (but for which a review is not yet available) or to make some offhand comment. My number of "Twitter" followers illustrates how inept I am in the realm of social media. As I write this, I have 1246 followers. My sense is that this is a low number. I mean, I don't expect to have a half million followers like Roger Ebert, but one might assume I could garner about 1% of his total. My Twitter underperformance is likely a result of two things: (1) a fundamental lack of understanding of the mechanisms used to increase the number of Twitter followers, and (2) not having enough time to rectify (1). There's probably a secret to increasing one's Twitter presence. Maybe it involves re-tweeting frequently. Maybe it involves following more people (I currently follow three - Ebert, Michael Smerconish, and Steven Moffat). It feels like back when I first started using ads and would occasionally "remind" readers to click on them. Those reminders never really worked. I envisioned massive amounts of untapped revenue that was slipping by.

Social media can be an unbelievable time sink. It's not unusual for people to spend hours each day on Facebook. The interesting question is where all the time is coming from. For kids, if it's at the expense of watching TV, how can that be a bad thing? But if leeches away valuable minutes from homework, reading a book, or engaging in off-line relationships, its value becomes questionable. In my case, time management is a challenge. I don't see as many movies as I once did. I rarely watch films on home video. My TV viewing is limited to a few hours per week. I like to spend spare time reading, writing, and (on increasingly rare occasions) playing the odd video game. Michael absorbs my attention for significant blocks of time each day. There simply isn't an opportunity for Facebook. If I created an account, it would go unattended for long spans of time. And, rightly or wrongly, I view any time spent on Facebook as wasteful. Many will disagree vociferously, either because they genuinely believe in the productivity of Facebook or because they secretly agree but find it insulting to have their Facebook sessions labeled as "unproductive." (I expect to get an earful from Sheryl about this since she has a Facebook account and visits it frequently.)

If Facebook had been around when I was in high school, I would have loved it - the potential of developing on-line friendships free of the awkwardness of interpersonal interaction would have been addictive. I was a socially awkward child and rarely had more than a handful of close friends. Having a non-threatening community to turn to at any time would have been a godsend. So I understand the allure. The older I get, however, the more artificial it all seems. I'm reminded of the Star Trek episode "The Menagerie" (or "The Cage," if you prefer), in which a race of humanoids have neglected their physical bodies in order to develop their intellect; they can experience only vicariously through others.

Age imparts perspective. Many things that seem worthwhile to teenagers lose their luster in later years. There's nothing inherently wrong with Facebook. Used as a tool, as a means to enhance one's on-line presence, it's a worthy creation. My concern is for those who take it to the next level and use it as a means to live their lives on-line. Their dissociation from reality makes them unprepared at best and unfit at worst to exist in the flesh-and-blood world. I'm not talking about the 16 year old who spends a couple hours per day on Facebook updating his status and reading messages, then does his homework before hanging out with friends. I'm referring to the person whose on-life existence seems more vital and compelling than his off-line one.

The more I consider where we as a society are going, the more I think many science fiction writers have gotten it right - we will become increasingly isolated as a result of electronics. It's happening gradually, but it is happening. The Internet, which not so long ago seemed like the gateway to a brave new world, has seduced us all, but it hasn't happened instantly. 20 years ago, if the Internet had crashed, how many people would have noticed? Would our day-to-day lifestyle have changed if the on-line world had been unplugged? Today, if the Internet was to collapse, the impact would be apocalyptic. We wouldn't merely be thrown back to 1990; we would end up back in 1890 (no banking, no power grid, no communication system, anarchy). I'm not predicting this will happen (with all of the redundancies in place, such a thing is almost impossible), but it's sobering to consider it.

When it comes to social media, I am a fumbler and doubter. I hear the evangelizing of True Believers but am not converted. I have no greater truth of my own to offer. I don't worry about kids wasting countless hours on Facebook - kids will find ways to waste time one way or another - but it concerns me when adults are doing this. Is the entirety of the human experience being reduced to what happens on a computer screen? Do we live real life just so we can upload pictures and videos for others to enjoy? How far away are we from becoming Talosians?

ReelViews through the years... (links take you to the web.archive site)

May 5, 1997
April 28, 1998
October 11, 1999
May 27, 2003
August 9, 2008


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