On April 14, 1996, glassdog.com opened up its virtual doors to the world at large — or at least that part of the world with Internet access, the Netscape browser and some unaccountable need to read what I had to say about this, that and the other thing.
Over the years, I have attempted as much as possible to “keep it up.” I have started and shut down about a dozen other URLs, I tried to make an online art gallery, I did a section called Overheard that was popular for a time, I published other people’s stories in a section called Spew, I made some Web Toys with the aid of Web Legend Ben Brown that allowed visitors to put in random words and see what domains were available with them, also an Ad Libs-style online greeting card. I published numerous stories about myself, and what happened to me, and what I thought, and what I hoped.
I started LanceArthur.com sometime later, the exact date even I don’t know but I’ll use May of 2003. That’s when I set up the account on my current ISP (the wonderful pair.com) though I owned the domain name for quite a long time before that date.
I have not had grand plans for any of this. I suppose that’s obvious by this point to anyone who’s been paying attention to my ten years on the Web causing trouble, being silly, making messes, making friends and planning world domination one browser at a time.
Anniversaries like this, the round ten-year kind, are supposed to herald retrospectives that showcase what has come before and yield tear-stained memories of the changes wrought and the regrets still painful and discolored. Unfortunately, I can’t dig deep into the archives because some months ago, it was all erased. Gone. The digital bits and bytes all lost except for the few tattered remnants logged by the Wayback Machine, and looking at those pages kind of makes me sad.
But it’s been a long time since we sat down to talk, you and I, so I thought I would take this opportunity to offer up some reflections on what has been and what might be, on where I’ve traveled and what I’ve seen, the hopes that were dashed to the rocks and the dreams fulfilled. It’s been a weird few years in my life, punctuated by huge changes and amazing realizations, not all of which are related to my virtual life laid out before you here, but all of which have been dutifully reported as they happened, though often filtered through the heavy gauze of cautious realization.
I would like to come up with something really deep and meaningful about the time I’ve spent online as both observer and creator, take everything I’ve learned and everything I’ve seen and the people I’ve met or come in contact with either IRL or virtually and pass on those insights to you, but I think perhaps the most intense idea I can pass on to you is that what the Web has done is intensify all the good and bad things we all suspected about each other but could never really prove or believe.
Because here is an atmosphere of an open mind, but not necessarily in the positive sense. We all wander around with thoughts, ideas, dreams, hopes and fears circling inside our individual brains like vultures over a carcass. Rarely, but sometimes, we let them out as words to our friends and enemies. But for the most part, a lot of that stays inside and never (thankfully) sees the light of day.
The Web can strip away ownership and responsibility for our thoughts. It can allow us to hide behind another mask and say the things we wouldn’t ordinarily, and it broadcasts it out there without filters or warnings or context. Now we can read and see all the beauty and ugliness of humanity in its purest form yet. Uncut, shot directly into the veins of your eyes and ears, and what it seems to be doing, at least from my uneducated perspective, is unveiling the flaws in human nature as gushing fountains of hatred and fear.
Context is always missing, to some degree. You may know a lot about me because over the years I’ve volunteered a lot of information and you probably, if you’ve been on this journey with me, understand who I am and why I say the things I do. Sometimes I am not even sure I understand that aspect, but one lesson I can take from all this is that I am perhaps not the best judge of myself or my deeds and thoughts. And it can be very uncomfortable to realize that someone else’s perspective about you is the right one, and the one you’ve built up out of hope and desire is just a thin and flimsy screen broadcasting the person you wish you were.
Personally, this doesn’t surprise me at all. And of course I am seeing this from a skewed perspective, unbalanced by years of homophobia and repression that I accepted as a consequence of what I am because it has always been this way and it’s not something I had to adjust to, knowing that a percentage of the population actively hates and fears me and would prefer a life without me or those like me (the gay ones, the different ones, the odd ones) in it. As if clearing out the disagreeable thoughts and uncomfortably attractive desires like so much attic-stored effluvia would suddenly make a perfect life finally attainable. But it’s all us other people out here trying to live out lives as we see fit that upsets that carefully constructed fiction.
Anyway, enough of the pessimistic approach to humanity. What about the good part? What do I take away from this decade of opening my kimono and listening to you respond with kindness or a well-deserved wrist-slap or, more likely, back-handed slap to the side of the head?
The nature of the personal web site, from its origins as a simple collection of pages to today’s often overbearingly intimate and link-laden blogs, is to be a reverse mirror on the world. It’s never been a 100% accurate reflection of the author, and I’m not sure that anything could ever be that. There’s always something held in reserve, either because we feel it’s too commonplace or too boring, or because we simply don’t want that much exposure (or fear that others in our lives wouldn’t want it, either). You can go as far as you want to go, now, the tools make that so easy it’s laughable.
Write it, speak it, film it… whatever you want to do now to broadcast yourself out to the world is suddenly not just possible but affordable and simple. I’ve played with more than a few of those tools over the years, doing a kind of Podcast in the 90’s using Real Audio, sitting behind a microphone in a Boston suburb late at night, jabbering nonsense into the ether from a literally naked vantage point. Making music, trying poetry, scanning in some handmade drawings, taking pictures and making up stories about them. The web can strip away not only responsibility, but limitation. It’s really easy to learn how to do whatever it is that you can imagine doing. Free tools are popping up with alarming frequency to help you do it. Computers are ridiculously cheap and becoming cheaper every day.
And through all of this you are allowed nearly limitless freedom to say or do whatever it is you want to. Sure, Big Brother is watching with increasingly detailed attention and you need to understand that there are consequences and ramifications for your actions, but given that you accept that you can certainly take your hands and attach them to your anus and open yourself up as wide as you want to.
The most amazing thing — though in retrospect it was bound to happen all along and maybe for me it’s just the speed with which it changes that’s surprising — is how much the Internet is part of daily life everywhere. The falling cost of hardware, the huge expansion of bandwidth, the simple and free tools and the cool factor of being online have all contributed to the Web’s vast and uncontrolled popularity. Information is disseminated so quickly, and can become viral and expand exponentially through web sites both professional and personal (and increasingly the distinction between the two is deteriorating anyway) so that it’s simple now to fnd out almost anything, but it’s also easier to spread lies, rumors, innuendo and propaganda since there are also fewer people taking the time to be responsible for checking everything out.
None of this is likely a surprise to any of you, so let me take the focus down closer and look at what this has done for me. I’m certainly not the earliest personal web site owner out there, nor the most prolific or even the most consistent. But ten years in, what have I learned about me and how has the experience changed my life?
I would have to say, first, that it’s been overwhelmingly positive. Unlike some, I never lost a job for parading my brain around naked like I do. I almost got in trouble for once linking to the Baby Jesus Buttplug with the phrase “Christmas can fuck me up the ass” or something like that, and a fellow employee whose religious aspirations were not quite in line with my own brought the page and the offending link to the attention of my C.E.O., my own boss, the company H.R. director and, because nothing of that nature can remain quiet in a company of only 45 people, everyone else at my ex-employer via the miracle of email. He quite rightly said that my posting of that under my own name might cause one or more of our “family-friendly” clients to rethink their relationships with any company that would allow someone that crass and rude and anti-Christian (which, we can all agree, also means anti-family — not to mention, you know, he’s a gee-aye-why) to be the creative director in charge of the entire (2-person) creative department.
The C.E.O. responded to the email by stating that I could do whatever I wanted to on my own site, under my own name, and neither he nor the company officially would take any action whatsoever. I voluntarily removed the link on my own, sent out an apology, and the entire episode became a sort of legend shared with every new employee who joined the company. My admiration for the C.E.O. and my loyalty for that company went up a few notches after that, even after the C.E.O. suggested that I might seek some professional counseling to work out my “rage issues.” I explained that it was for that very reason I had a web site in the first place, and nothing more was said.
I have never been actively stalked as far as I know. I have had a couple of experiences with obsessive fans, one of whom professed her love for me and suggested we’d make a perfect pair (this was, of course, before I publicly announced my preference for cock) and another who I met at South by Southwest a few years back who only wanted, as far as I know, to tell me how great he thought I was.
I have never been comfortable in the least with that aspect of this thing — the Weblebrity. Luckily, when one stops writing with frequency, one also no longer has to worry about (or long for) undue attention and for the most part I have had nothing but positive experiences with anyone I have ever met or corresponded with through this or any other web sites.
One of the most fascinating epiphanies I had some years ago occurred because I wanted to experiment with public forums and see what all the hubbub about online community was about. I started up the forums at glassdog.com at about the same time that I tried to start a directory of collaborative sites at glassdog.net. The more the merrier, I’ve always thought — though not necessarily on my own pages. Commenting, by and large, is better left to those sites more concerned with traffic numbers (because everyone likes the sound of their own voice) than me. This has never been about popularity for me, it has always been about self-expression. Why should I have to hand over my pages to hear your opinion when you can go out and make your own web page?
Anyway, the forums ran for about a year before the signal-to-noise ratio fell to a level that made it all seem, to me, to be a waste of time. I was spending more time monitoring and policing the forums than enjoying the conversations and participating, so I shut them down. I believe that I may have inadvertently spawned at least one fairly successful community that’s still going strong today, though the only credit I can take is that I shut my doors so they went off and built a better home for themselves.
At some point in one of the threads, someone asked about homophobia. I wasn’t out online at the time and I wasn’t going to suddenly out myself in a dramatic “Ha! Fuck you! I’m gay, so all you haters just eat shit!” because A) I don’t like histrionics at all and B) I was honestly curious about the topic and more specifically how my ultra-liberal, open-minded fan base would respond.
Frankly, I was amazed and appalled. The question was simple: Why are you homophobic? What’s the big deal? What are you afraid of. I was sure that anyone who was visiting my site and reading my words had to be “just like me.” They were, if not gay, then probably very gay-friendly. Open-minded. Liberal, and proud of it. Instead, the question opened up the door and, although the majority of the responses were as expected, about 25% of them were lucid explanations about what was wrong with homos.
I discovered that there are people out there who simply cannot fathom homosexuality, so they come up with the most creative and incredible excuses for it. For example, that there’s no such thing as gay men. So-called gay men are simply so enamored and desirous of sex that they’ll do it with anyone. We’re actually straight, you see, but we’ll fuck anything. It’s all about the sex.
One young mother confessed that if she found out that any of her children were gay, she would be devastated. Not because of any Biblical prophesies or any lack of grandchildren, but because of what they would face from society as exemplified by the responses in that very thread. The thought that her children might face that kind of unwarranted hatred and rejection based not on any action they may take or something they said or did but simply because they were gay made her hope and, I assume, pray that her children were not gay, or if they were she would advise them to stay deep in their closets where they could remain safely hidden from all the world would do to them.
Coming out online, for me, was anti-climactic. A non-issue. I had chosen not to do it specifically so I wouldn’t be “the gay web publisher.” It wasn’t shame so much as a desire not to be labeled as anything. Like that mother’s children, I wanted to be known and appreciated or despised for the things I said and did rather than color any of my words with preconceptions around the gay label. I had seen it over and over and over, the easy application of excuse because someone is gay, as if that alone describes and explains everything about them. Turning it around, you never see “heterosexual” or “straight” used to describe someone in relation to their work or deeds. “Straight writer Stephen King’s new book, Cujo, again reflects this heterosexual man’s unique perspective and takes the fear and horror he experiences as a straight man into a locked car, attacked for who he is by society in the metaphorical form of a rabid St. Bernard.”
Uhhhh, no. Egotism, perhaps, thinking that it would be that important or that anyone was examining my “work” to such an extent, and perhaps I was trying to hide in a different sort of closet, again, afraid to drop the last curtain away. And the reaction was heartening — as were many of the emails I get from people struggling with their own closets and looking for advice or just someone to calm their fears for them.
Ten years isn’t such a long time, but what happens in a decade can transform a person. I was reminded of this last night at the birthday party for my friend Mark. I tend to always be the oldest person in any room, for some reason. I’ve gotten used to it and don’t fret about it (usually) because I find that when it matters, it only seems to matter to me. Mark was turning 28 and he was in his cups, as was his wont, and he’s the sort who both gets incredibly earnest and has those deep insights that come with too much Bourbon and disappear with the sunrise.
He and I were talking about the vagaries of life. He was citing Nietzsche and I was thinking about me, as usual — the smartest man I know. The whole “God is dead” thing and the glorious life that could be had free of moral judgments and the idea of nihilism and the attempt to say “Zarathustra” while into one’s third or fourth Basil Hayden’s is quite a feat no matter how old you are, and as I listened to him and thought, my God, there’s 16 years difference between us and I was watching Star Wars at the Stockdale Six Theatres a year before he was even born, I realized that one thing I have lost in the intervening years between the first day glassdog.com appeared online and now is my sense of optimism — that thing is in serious jeopardy.
At 28, one is already jaded but hope lives inside like a flower needing water to bud. The world disappoints you at every turn, you’re beginning to realize that those dreams you had in high school and college are mostly just that, and money is more important than time. 30 is looming like a big, scare boulder about to roll all over your wasted youth and even though you’re not entirely sure what will happen to you, you’re equally certain that it’ll be good.
I wanted to give him some advice, not that he’d remember it at all this morning but isn’t it a Sage’s duty to pass on what wisdon he has accrued to others so they can ignore him when he’s talking and laugh at his weird ideas while he’s taking a piss in the loo? And what I told him was to always be honest. That’s the most one can ever hope for these days. Honesty. When you speak, speak the truth. When you challenge, challenge with passion. And when you love, love without fear.
I, too, was also drunk, so it probably came out more like “honesty is like a little bird in a tree that shits on you.” I always try to work “shit” into my philosophies. People can always relate to that.
As I slowly and methodically drift into my second decade of online publishing, I crawl forward with a sense of hope and a fear of peril. As stated, I believe that the opening up of the world’s bandwidth so that more people can express themselves will yield more noise, more vitriol, more abuse and more nonsense than it will creativity, honesty, beauty and humanity. People are no longer interested in learning anything, if in fact they ever were. As Stephen Colbert so deftly and mercilessly points out in his nightly skewering of modern news “personality” shows, education and knowledge have become detrimental characteristics, and it’s about who can scream the loudest and the longest, thereby drowning out everyone else. It’s about simplistic answers, the selling of lies as truth, the avoidance of responsibility and the retelling of tales without thought regarding their origination.
I’m just a guy, y’know? I’m out here working, making stuff, playing around, thinking and acting and trying not to screw up too often. I believe as you believe, that I am right in my opinions, that the world would be a better place if everyone would just shut up and listen to me, and that the people who spout the opposite views are all idiots. I make mistakes, and I hopefully learn from them and move along. I have learned that love isn’t something to hold close and doll out in measured doses. I have learned that hope is sometimes all that’s left, and when you think things can’t possibly get any worse, all it takes is one Evangelical Conservative to prove you wrong. I have learned that people are both better and worse that I thought, that just because someone is smart doesn’t mean they’re wise, and that you should definitely say Yes more than you say No.
Happy Anniversary to me. Now let’s all go get drunk.
April 13, 2006