I love the internet. I love the way it allows me to connect and reconnect with the people in my life who are important to me. My wife and I met through the dating website OKCupid. I have a number of family members and colleagues I am able to stay in close touch with via Facebook Messenger. I am one year younger than Mark Zuckerberg and when I was in college, like him, I also thought that Facebook’s mission of connecting people to each other was inherently good. I was hungry for the promises of connection and community that the web offers.
Lately though, it’s been much more difficult to muster optimism about Facebook as a force for good, or any other tech giant. It’s not just that Facebook has used a litany of false and misleading pretenses to sell users’ personal data to advertisers. It’s not just that it took until this week (!!!) for Facebook to ban Alex Jones after years of hateful, harmful Sandy Hook conspiracy theories, after the company raked in gobs of money while hiding behind bad-faith freedom of speech arguments. It’s not just that YouTube’s algorithms favor conspiracy theory videos because they get users to watch for longer. Or that Twitter has allowed harassment and threats against journalists to get beyond a dangerous and hateful level. Or that everyone from Instagram to 8chan has provided platforms for white nationalists to gather to foment hatred and encourage violence. I could go on, but suffice it to say that greed and nihilism have been a devastating combination for the online world in recent years.
It feels like the internet was this blue-sky opportunity for humanity to really show what we are made of. It was a blank canvas on a global scale, and many of the barriers to collective action had fallen away. And seeing it instead be co-opted by profit-seekers and tribalism has been…demoralizing. I find myself hungrier than ever for sources of optimism. For reminders of our capacity as humans for creating healing, compassionate communities.
So, this morning, let’s talk about two stories that demonstrate we are still capable of connecting and collaborating in positive and loving ways. Many of you may be familiar with a game called World of Warcraft, which is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. What that means is it’s a game where millions of people create characters that they then use to try and kill other people’s characters in a very large online world. It currently has several million subscribers. Honest to goodness I have never once in my life played World of Warcraft, although in full disclosure, I did play so much Diablo II with my roommates one semester in college that I had to get surgery on one of the tendons in my right hand. You can see the scar right here. In any online role-playing game, it takes a lot of time playing with your character to gain the experience needed to level up and become stronger and more deadly. So, that’s Warcraft.
Griffin McElroy is a new media specialist, and what Griffin did, was to try and travel all around the multiple continents inside the game, without killing or harming any other characters. His ultimate goal was blowing a kiss to the most powerful player in the game. There’s a lot of actions you can take in Warcraft, and most people focus on the ones for attacking or defending, but it turns out there’s also a button to make your character blow a kiss. Griffin went all over the world, and he documented his journey in a series of videos entitled “Peacecraft.” And in it, he dies SO many times. He’s just a total sitting duck.
So, in order to be able to have his character do literally anything, Griffin had to beg another player in the game to give him 8 coppers, so his character could learn a trade. There is a rough conversion rate from US dollars to money in the game, because you can actually use real money to buy Warcraft money, and that’s about one or two pennies worth of US dollar-value. He used that money to train himself to become a miner so that he could buy clothes and transportation.
Over and over again on his journey, Griffin found strangers who were willing to help him just because he asked. The videos were released on a weekly basis, and each time he logged back into this little project, there were more people who had heard about it, and who donated in-game money or armor or other equipment. Griffin began posting when and where he would log into Warcraft, and a legion of defenders began traveling to those places to give him what protection they could in his journey to blow kisses. At one point, they all had a party together at an abandoned theme park, complete with music, dancing, and graphically generated rainbows arching from player to player. In the end, Griffin did manage to blow a kiss to the most powerful player in the Warcraft universe, after being shielded by a platoon of loyal followers. During his peregrinations, other players had given him almost $500 worth of in-game money, and in the end, Griffin gifted it all back to the player who had originally given him eight coppers. He showed that even in a game structured around violence to the degree that Warcraft is, compassion and generosity can still be successful strategies.
The second example I want to describe is a social experiment from the website Reddit, and was called simply “Place.” The premise was remarkably simple: a new site within Reddit was created that featured a one-million-pixel blank canvass, in the dimensions of 1,000 x 1,000 pixels. Any user who already had a Reddit account before the experiment started could change the color of any of the pixels at any time but once they had edited a pixel, a timer prohibited them from making any changes for the next five minutes. Hence, in order to create anything meaningful as part of the image, users had to work together. At first, some communities tried to turn the whole page into a black hole, or into a shrine to their favorite autocrat. But each time such a representation started to emerge, it was pushed back on by a community with a positive design representing something they all liked or believed in. You can see the end-result image on my Facebook page, I posted it Friday. After 72 hours, the experiment ended. What sticks out in the final image are works of art, geometric patterns in rainbow colors, and more nerdy references than an episode of The Big Bang Theory.
The experiment’s conclusion was clear: individual trolls can have an outsized negative influence on internet spaces, but when it comes to a task that requires creativity and collaboration, communities that are built around actually believing in something will prevail. I may not agree with many of the groups or communities that created representational images on “Place.” But it did convince me that in a fair and democratic arena, people who actually have something to say will be the ones whose message will emerge. Sam Machkovech of Ars Technica wrote that “r/place may forever change our outlook—and even our hopes—about how online communities could one day evolve to better reflect the real-world checks and balances that make slandering or abusing someone difficult. For now, we can at least remember r/place as a testament to the human spirit…”
Like any tool, the internet can be used for good or harm. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web and a consistent advocate for its free and open use, is a Unitarian. Our respect for the interdependent web of existence is probably the second most well-known of our seven principles, and applies as much to cyberspace as to nature space. Our one-on-one, group, and community relationships can all be strengthened if we use online communication in a positive and respectful manner. More and more, human relationships are being formed and nurtured in a blend of online and in-person ways. If we can bring a healthy respect for our interdependent nature to both our online and offline activities, we will be stronger for having built community using both.
May it be so, and may we be the ones to make it so.
Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation
May 5, 2019
© Rev. Jonathan Rogers