The notion that "information wants to be free" has been repeated so many times that its insight has eroded into banality. But as the Internet continues to go through the earliest stages of its evolution into a medium for mass interaction, we are only beginning to see just how many kinds of information -- the useful, the irrelevant, and the downright frightening -- are moving in ways that we never could have anticipated.
The Internet is now so massive and diverse that if you seek a particular fellowship -- any fellowship -- you are more or less guaranteed to find it. There is an old message-board chestnut known as Rule #34: "If it exists there is porn of it." We might go even further: "If it can be thought, there are people out there thinking it."
This seems especially true of those thoughts that are too distasteful to be given a hearing offline.
This state of affairs is an inevitable consequence of the Internet's progress. We've seen rapid decreases in the cost of moving information from one person to another. On the "sender" side, this has resulted in acts of "speech" that are faster, freer, and weirder, embodying a wider range of consensus than their offline equivalents. Whatever gets said has the potential to reach millions of other speakers, who often exhibit far touchier, and stranger, behavior than they would display in, say, a public park.
On the "receiver" side, all of this new speech has added to the information load that each of us must carry. The responsibility for filtering all of this stuff -- the vast majority of which is chatter, or worse -- has shifted from the high-walled slush piles of the publishing establishment to the wiring that connects our eyes to our brains. Despite attempts to filter the Internet with software or regulation, the job of managing what we pay attention to ultimately falls to us.
The job is getting harder. There's so much weirdness out there.
I'm tempted to use some kind of analogy here, to say that the Web shift I'm describing is like going from a little Italian restaurant that serves one entree a night to the food court at a mall, or a giant supermarket. But this analogy would only hold up if said supermarket had 39 aisles devoted to barely distinguishable brands of quasi-edible dirt, with a few razor-embedded apples thrown in here and there.
In the supermarket of the Web, there is no FDA or Department of Agriculture supervising the offerings. Instead, there are products catering to the most perverse niches.
Among the scarier apples out there are lively communities for white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, Japanese porn aficionados, people who dress up as cartoon animals, and an international sisterhood of hardcore anorexics.
One of the most disturbing incidents to ever occur online took place in November, when Abraham Biggs, a 19-year-old "lifecaster," killed himself during a live online broadcast. "Do it, do the world a favor and stop wasting our time with your mindless self-pity," wrote one of the thousand-plus anonymous voyeurs who watched Biggs's demise.
And here we might find a deeper understanding of why so many aisles are filled with dirt. The tendency of frivolous and dangerous speech to proliferate online is the mirror-image of the offline world, where we impose strict limits on what we're willing to listen to.
Rather than turn our noses up at the communities I've referenced, we might treat them as valuable dispatches from the silent and the ignored.
Yes, they're into some pretty awful stuff over in the dirt aisle, but in a formal sense its attractions are not so different from the mainstream Internet of Wikipedia and Facebook. People are seeking open public spaces, venues for experimentation, and a sense that they're part of something larger than themselves. They're building forums where freedom is wilder and more diverse than any offline equivalent.
They want the freedom to say what they can't say offline. They hope to find someone at the other end of the wires, listening.
— Mattathias Schwartz is a freelance writer who lives in New York