Virtuality Bites

In July 2000, then-Federal Communications Commission Chair William Kennard gave the keynote address at the international Supercomm conference for broadband service providers. Before an audience of people whose job it is to connect the whole wide world, Kennard called the rise of the Internet the "third greatest revolution in mankind's history," after agriculture and industry. "This latest ... revolution should be defined, first and foremost, by its power to unlock the potential of all of our people," he said, "by its power to educate our poorest children, to empower people with disabilities, to uplift impoverished rural and urban communities, and to repair and revitalize the fabric of our communities."

A decade later, 79 percent of adults over the age of 18 are online, according to the Pew Research Center, meaning more people than ever are enjoying the convenience of e-mail, mobile banking, and click-of-a-button global news. By anyone's metric, the Internet has accomplished its most benevolent aims. But as the Web balloons exponentially, so too does a rather ugly undercurrent of racism and classism.

For an example of where the Internet has gone tragically wrong, one need only look to the strange rise of Antoine Dodson. On July 28 of this year, a man broke into Dodson's Huntsville, Alabama, housing-project apartment and climbed into bed with Dodson's sister, Kelly. She screamed, at which point Dodson, 24, rushed into her room to fight off the assailant, who fled through a window. With his sister safe and the police on the scene, Dodson, who is gay and black, gave an interview to NBC affiliate WAFF-48's news crew. Visibly upset, the young man screamed into the camera that he was going to catch the potential rapist, and he warned people to "hide your kids, hide your wife, hide your husbands, because they're raping everybody out here."

On paper, a black man expressing distress after his sister was nearly sexually assaulted is not a funny thing. On the Internet, Dodson became a laughingstock. Mere hours after his frightened interview hit WAFF's website, someone posted a link to Dodson's segment on the social news site Reddit. After that, as so often happens on the Internet, the video snowballed: It went up on YouTube, then was posted by the popular gossip blog DListed and VH1's comedy website, Best Week Ever. Eventually, Dodson was featured on an episode of the Today show, an appearance prompted largely by the fact that a band called the Gregory Brothers had taken bits and pieces of Dodson's emotional pleading and turned them into a catchy R&B song available for download on iTunes (it seemed few of the 30,000-plus downloaders cared that they were nodding their heads to the sounds of a man talking about his sister being violated).

Unlikely as it may seem, many videos like the one starring Dodson have become popular on the Internet. News segments in which working-class African Americans are shown in various states of immodesty have become fodder for thoughtless bloggers and lazy trend reporters. In 2003, in a story about a controversial car modification that gives mufflers a distinct screeching noise, a man named "Bubb Rubb" spoke lovingly of installing "Whistle Tips" on cars throughout Oakland, California, even going so far as to mimic the sound of the whistle. In 2006, a handful of residents in Mobile, Alabama, caused a minor uproar when they claimed to have found a leprechaun in a local tree. Bearing gold teeth and thick Southern accents, several of the witnesses came forward to try to explain the strange phenomenon, with one woman theorizing that the leprechaun was actually a "crackhead." Two years after that in Florida, 7-year-old Latarian Milton stole his grandmother's car and crashed it into a curb before telling reporters, "It's fun to do bad things." To date, each of the videos has earned several million views on YouTube -- the leprechaun clip has more than 16 million -- thanks to wide distribution via blogs and social-networking sites.

Besides becoming hugely popular "memes" -- small, easily devoured bits of culture transferred rapidly via the Web -- what these three news segments have in common with the Dodson video is that they all depict black people doing nothing more than behaving differently from the way one might behave in, say, the Hamptons. The videos, and many others like them, have no real wit or social value. The people in them are not entertainers, nor are they acting; they're just giving interviews to a TV crew. Their behavior isn't tongue-in-cheek in the slightest -- which means that in streaming these people's images for kicks, we're laughing at them, not with them. At least reality-TV stars, who are also roundly mocked, have agreed to be spectacles for the cameras.

At such an enlightened time in world history, it would no doubt be impossible to get 15 million people to admit that they enjoy casual racism from time to time. In fact, most people would be offended that you even asked. Yet 15 million is how many times just one of the many YouTube videos of Dodson has been viewed. In other words, Internet users around the world have tuned in 15 million times to stare and laugh at a black man angry because his sister was nearly raped.

To some extent, this was to be expected; grim, bigoted strains emerging in a medium that reveres both mass participation and anonymity is about as shocking as a purse going missing in a dark nightclub. What is interesting, however, is how common and accepted such biases have become on the Web. In the comfort and solitude of one's bedroom, laughing at a troubled, poverty-stricken person of color is far more socially acceptable than doing the same on a busy street corner. What's more, the disposable immediacy of the Internet means it isn't always conducive to critical thought. Users take in hundreds of images and videos per day -- and thousands of lines of text -- and rarely pause to analyze what they've seen or why they click. In his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr describes the user's desire to jump frantically around the Web as a kind of addiction. "We want to be interrupted," he writes, "because each interruption ... brings us a valuable piece of information. ... And so we ask the Internet to keep interrupting us, in ever more and different ways."

What we're left with is an Internet community that feeds us, in the isolation of our homes or desks, distasteful videos by the truckload while rarely asking us to stop and absorb what we're seeing. The Antoine Dodson video isn't just insidious because we're laughing at a low-income black man's frustrations. It's insidious because the Internet allows us to ignore why we're laughing.

Such passive bigotry is an accepted and thriving undercurrent of online culture, but a few memes showcase the deepening class divisions of the Internet in more obvious ways. People of WalMart, billed by its creators as "a satirical social commentary" on "the outrageously bad/ugly/creepy/crazy shoppers" at Wal-Mart, is a photo blog poking fun at bargain-hunters who dress strangely. Accompanying the photos -- most of which are submitted by readers -- are bitchy bon mots, which usually mock the subjects' clothes, hair, weight, and social class. A black woman in gold is described as a "ghetto C-3PO," while another woman in lots of makeup is "the Joker." The comments on the posts take the "satire" to another level of cruelty. Beneath a picture of a man being arrested by four police officers in a Texas store, one commenter wrote, "I hope they kicked him a few times." In response to an image of a heavyset woman walking through a parking lot, a commenter remarked, "Only an animal would walk around in public like that."

The whole site -- from the photos to the captions to the comments -- is very rarely witty or exciting, and yet in less than a year, People of WalMart has garnered thousands of fans and an eponymous book deal, so that readers might be able to laugh at other people without having to use electricity. What's worse, as with the YouTube videos of black people, it seems as if much of the Internet is tone-deaf to People of WalMart's obnoxious depravity. The wildly popular blog Boing Boing called the site "interesting, like a kind of modern Secret Museum of Mankind," while the meme-making Gawker said it was "art," later declaring that it "could be one of the great photo essays of our time."

What happened to Kennard's digital utopia? The beatified World Wide Web, with its free-flowing information and global reach, was supposed to be the great equalizer, a place where anyone could learn, play, and grow without the twisted constraints of everyday life. Instead, we have a space where society's most intractable issues with race and class are increasingly prominent eyesores. Yet the Internet itself isn't cruel and hateful; the Internet is what we make it. We are the ugly ones.

Looking back, we can see that Kennard was both right and wrong. The advent of the Internet was indeed a revolution -- the most significant development of our era. But this revolution is not for everyone.