In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.
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MICROTONES by Mark Riechers, known Tone Madison associate
When I signed up to be a "neighborhood lead" for my east side neighborhood in Madison, I assumed I'd be regulating posts like this:
You know, a basic mix of "why is this animal here" and "what the hell is drain tile" that you’d expect in a neighborhood full of small, old houses and first time homeowners.
It didn't take me long to realize that NextDoor is actually, perhaps more than most online spaces, a place where people who are Not Internet People — generally older, who often post in ALL CAPS — have decided to log on and deliver their two cents about what's happening in the neighborhood. (I am definitely not the first to observe this.)
For instance, people frequently post about how the neighborhood is overrun with crime — missing change from an unlocked car, looking generally "suspicious" for standing in front of your house, things like that. Or the post declaring that we are suffering a plague of rats, tearing every home and structure to shreds with their disease-ridden claws — claws that other neighbors urged us to be humane in removing, while yet another neighbor proposed that we airdrop poison from high altitudes.
The rat plague post actually brought in a Dane County health inspector to investigate. When he delivered his findings at a community meeting, he said that we had completely normal amounts of rats and he had really only appeared that night because "some people on the internet were panicking."
And through all of this, people are reporting each other constantly. Never for profane language or inappropriate content, but because they got pushback on something they posted about. That was a sign that "the drama of this site has become too much." The website, you see, was too mean.
That's not to say that we shouldn't argue about real issues on neighborhood forums. But it just feels like, if these rat panics and questionable crime waves are representative of the internet literacy of the neighborhood, we are woefully underprepared for charged but nuanced online debate.
The F-35 debate has consumed much of forum traffic for the summer, and with good reason — Eken Park is in the area affected by the increased noise levels, and we all have standing to share our concerns. You see a few constructive conversations — if we can get a test flyover to actually see how loud the jets might actually be, for example — but mostly you see "STOP THE F-35s" or "VOTE HECK YEAH for the F-35s." The comments are filled with lots of shouting about who should move if they don't like it (uh, that's not how buying a house works) or how this issue is linked to the military industrial complex that is consuming the world in violence and death.
I'm glad to see people talking about the F-35 issue because it seems like that's what NextDoor should be for — bringing a big issue down to the ground level for a neighborhood to talk about it. But I'm not sure NextDoor is facilitating that — like most social networks, the rage posts get a lot of engagement, and since we've got a lot of social media newbies in the mix, you've got a lot of people rage-reporting anyone they disagree with or anyone who's "making drama."
Fixing online discourse is a complicated issue that will take generations to work through — think about how much newspapers have evolved over the past century, and they didn't even have TikTok. But we have to start somewhere. I don't think a call for civility is going to do it — maybe a call for perspective? Some internet culture researchers call it an "ethics layer" for online discourse — basically, instead of "This is good, I like this, I share/comment" the loop becomes "Should I share this? What conversations will it start? Will it bring good to my community, or just rile people up?" Some of those questions will be specific to the community, like "Do my neighbors have concerns I share related to this? If I leave this comment on this person’s post, will I be able to look them in the eye if I run into them at the grocery store?"
Basically, are you willing to own what you say?
However it's structured, it's about a contract — you come to the community for something, and you contribute something in return, behaving as though you'd like the community to continue. That's a concept that us "internet natives" (groan) will have to communicate to the newbies, even if they scream back at us in all caps. Over and over.
It ain't much, but it's honest internet work.
New this week:
Wisconsin Books To Prisoners' uses food to open up a window into the systematic dehumanization of prison life in the new cookbook Canteen Cuisine.
Immigré draws on musical traditions that tend to invite stretching out at length—funk, Afrobeat, and jazz—but its debut EP, Ali Shuffle, takes a nimble and concise approach.
Elsewhere on the Madison internet: Police Chief Koval's retirement sets off the dog whistles. Wisconsin Public Radio kicks off a new podcast about the cancelled high-speed rail line that I'll forever be mad about.
This week's Madison calendar: Milwaukee's Northless and Madison's Corridoré team up for a delightfully heavy show at BarleyPop Live on Friday the 11th. The new documentary Punk the Capital screens at Communication. And more.