Is the Internet Meaner or am I Just Older?

It was a simpler time. Before Facebook. Before the iPhone. Most desktop PCs still ran Windows 98, and people rarely sent me messages telling me how ugly I was.

Live from the TechTV Studios, It’s The Screen Savers

Before the women in bikinis on trampolines, there was the 90-minute live cable television show called The Screen Savers, a Car Talk-like program that featured the lovable duo of Leo Laporte and Patrick Norton, who would offer tech tips and take your computer questions. I was part of a supporting trio that in the beginning included the irreverent and whip-smart Martin Sargent — who is funnier than Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon combined, and deserves his own late night show. My partner in crime at the start was the gracious and kind-hearted Jessica Corbin, fresh out of UCLA and so much more comfortable on camera than I was. Jessica’s red hair combined with my dark hair caused many to call us the Ginger and Mary-Ann of tech. Jessica never wore sequined dresses, and I never wore crop-tops or gingham; but I did have an excellent collection of geeky t-shirts, which I wore every day because we had no wardrobe department, and because people sent me the t-shirts for free.

The End of the Monoculture

The Screen Savers came on the air just at the tail-end of what some call the monoculture — those decades of Must See TV, where everyone watched the same things and talked about them the next morning at work and school. Everyone did not watch The Screen Savers. But many people did, and I still hear from former fans with fond memories of watching the show with their family or even growing up with it. This was before Reddit or dating apps, in a time when all of us felt a lot more alone in our idiosyncrasies. We couldn’t just hop online with the promise of finding someone who was interested in whatever niche thing we were interested in. Our audience was mostly male, but I heard from girls and women, too. I continue to hear from people who — at the time they watched us on television, thought they were the only person in the world who even knew what Linux was — were shocked to find that they were not the only person to be entertained by watching someone install it on live television.

Mean Tweets

Before I started back at TWiT in January of 2015, our CEO, Lisa, warned me that things were rough out there on the Internet. For the previous decade, while my Wikipedia page mysteriously stayed online, I had enjoyed relative anonymity. I had a Twitter account, but I never tweeted. I wasn’t on Facebook. I had only recently signed up for a private Instagram account so I could follow my daughter. I remember having drinks with a friend who worked at TWiT, before I started back there. She had to tell me what Gamer Gate was because I’d never heard of it. And she pondered why someone would ever want to have a private Instagram account, and I wondered why anyone would want a public one.

I will never know

People are nicer now. Have I grown on them? Has my lack of response bored the mean tweeters and caused them to go elsewhere? Maybe the most important thing I’ve learned in these two years I’ve been back is that I will never know. These angry online folk don’t really know me, and I don’t know them either. These days I’m more quizzical about why they choose me over a real celebrity. And I’ve come to understand that there are people out there who might have had lives so difficult that they cry out for attention by attacking the eyebrows of a 43-year-old woman on a tech podcast. And some people are just sociopaths. And it is not my job to judge which is which. And maybe technology has enabled people to be a little meaner on the Internet, or maybe its enabled me to see more of the meanness. What I know for sure is that I am older. And if I think of that only as the lines I see on my face in 2017 that weren’t there in 2001, then I’m playing the same game as the online trolls. Because what I hope is that being older means I have a better understanding of people and more empathy for others as well as for myself. And that spending time wondering about the motivations of an online stranger is not the way I want to spend my days.

Head of Platform Stories, Technology @Medium. 👩🏽‍💻

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