Monday, March 9, 2015

Your Internet Friends Are Real

Let’s Really Be Friends
A defense of online intimacy

By Kyle Chayka The New Republic

In 1997, a writer and web developer named Paul Ford walked into a sushi restaurant in midtown Manhattan to meet a group of strangers. These were bloggersa term not yet widely in usewho, along with Ford, formed a tight-knit vanguard of individuals publishing personal writing online. Ford had been building experimental personal websites since 1993, and had made a name for himself online with his lyrical missives on programming esoterica and New York dating mishaps. He’d never met the other bloggers IRL (In Real Life, a phrase that likely had even less currency then than blogger). He was excited to finally get the chance to do so.

When Ford arrived at the restaurant, however, he froze with anxiety. “I was 22 and the Internet was new and everyone was sitting around a table chatting and laughing,” Ford told me. “Who went to parties where no one knew each other?” He stood just inside the door and surreptitiously watched the group clustered around a table. “I left after ten minutes.”

This incident remains as strikingly plausible today as it did two decades ago. Relationships that travel from the Internet to the nondigital world, or navigate a space somewhere in between, have retained that same patina of weirdness. The stigma associated with online friendship, that persistent doubt that “real” intimacy can only be created via physical encounter, has not faded. Even in this, the Age of Social Media, when virtual interaction populates almost every facet of daily existence, online friendships are still viewed with suspicion. But they shouldn’t be. The time has come to obliterate the false distinctions between digital ties and the ones that bind us in the physical world. Our lives on Twitter and Tumblr are today a real part of our real lives. Everyone is an Internet friend.

John Suler, in his 2000 book The Psychology of Cyberspace, wrote that people “tend to separate their online lives from their offline lives.” But this is far less true today. With the launch of Friendster (2002); MySpace (2003); and, in 2004, the global behemoth Facebook, distinctions between friendship online and off grew more ambiguous. People had to decide which of their friends and acquaintancesmany of whom they had not been motivated to see in yearsthey should befriend digitally. Facebook in particular, with its early reliance on college e-mail accounts for membership, has tied digital identity more firmly to the IRL iteration.

The perception that online relationships are somehow less real than their physical counterparts exemplifies what Nathan Jurgenson, a New York-based sociologist and researcher for the messaging platform Snapchat, calls “digital dualism.” Contemporary identities and relationships are no more or less authentic in either space. “We’re coming to terms with there being just one reality and digital is part of it, not any less real or true,” Jurgenson said. “What you do online and what you do face-to-face are completely interwoven.”

The first mainstream internet communitiesand thus some of the earliest virtual friendshipsdidn’t emerge until the late ’80s, when commercial traffic was allowed online via private Internet service providers like The World, which launched in Massachusetts in 1989. Early online social groups were largely restricted to specific-interest cliques that hewed to the medium’s nerd origins. Usenet, an e-mail and file-sharing client created to sort news by subject, first launched in 1980; the WELL, a dial-up bulletin-board system co-founded in 1985 by hippie futurist and editor of the utopian Whole Earth Catalog Stewart Brand, became a popular gathering point for Grateful Dead fans. IRC, or Internet Relay Chats, were likewise segregated along topical channels, like #anime or #hardware or #geek. The platform peaked in the 1990s with Eris Free Network, and today is largely reserved for illicit hacker groups with a need for anonymity.

In this early period, crossover from the digital world and into the real one remained rare, in part due to suspicion of the semi-anonymous nature of the Internet itself. “You don’t tend to find deep relationships online,” Douglas Rushkoff, the tech writer and thinker, told me. “And if you look for them you could easily get catfished,” Rushkoff said. (Catfish [noun]: “Someone who pretends to be someone they’re not using Facebook or other social media to create false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances.” See Urban Dictionary.) For those who have grown up on the Internet, the expectations of honesty in response to the existential chat query “A/S/L?” (Age/Sex/Location) might be low. But this may not remain the case.

Online traffic in the United States increased by more than 1,000 percent between 1999 and 2003. A by-product of this growth was a narrowing of the digital divide. Enough people were online that your real friends might well know your online-only ones, who could then be mentally reclassified simply friends-of-friends. IRL meetings became less suspect. Web communities, meanwhile, began to leave the vertical depths of niche interest and join the mainstream. In 1999, a web designer named Matthew Haughey launched MetaFilter, a general-interest online forum that is still active today. MetaFilter was designed to help users share links of compelling posts (cat videos!) from across the wider Internet. It also became known for its then-unique penchant for physical meetups. “The meetups were half shy nerds and half relatively normal people,” said Rusty Foster, a developer who founded a contemporaneous (and now largely defunct) community called Kuro5hin, which skewed toward a nerdier audience. Foster has since referred to his site as a “gated dysfunctional community.”

The first MetaFilter meetup happened in 2001, after an earthquake in Seattle. Discussion of the natural phenomenon as it happened caused the members to notice that they lived in close proximity to each other. Once it was safe to go out, they decided to gather at a bar. It went so well that Haughey soon devoted a section of his site to planning such events. Haughey attended his first meetup at a Belgian frites spot in San Francisco in 2002. “I was incredibly nervous, because I didn’t know anyone,” he said. But his fears proved misplaced. “It was really a great experience. One of the guys had the greatest username: Fishfucker. 

Fishfucker turned out to be a really nice dude.” Meetups eventually became big business. In 2002, a start-up called Meetup was launched that managed online social circles with an IRL component, charging group organizers for added features. The site now boasts over 180,000 Meetups with focuses ranging from New Age philosophy to “geek physique.” (The Internet’s ability to convene niche cultures has never flagged.)
The anxiety still lingering around Internet friendship is a legacy of a particular antiquated conception of online lifea sense that “the Net,” like jetpacks and the Segway, was going to be a lot cooler than it has proven to be. The 1980s-era techno-utopian vision of “cyberspace” as a separate, and perhaps even pure, Matrix-style realm of glowing tubes and binary code was a false one. “At no point was there ever a cyberspace,” Jurgenson said. “It was always deeply about this one reality.” The Internet is shopping for knitted caps and sharing coupons for bad meals and enduring comments from sexist strangers. It has always included an element of real life difficulty, and the primordial web denizens knew it. Now, the rest of us do, too. We once fetishized cyberspace as sexy and revolutionary. Today it’s just normal.

Online friendships make it clearand forgive the debt to Facebookthat the way we friend now has changed. Intimacy now develops in both digital and physical realms, often crossing freely between the two. If we accept the equal value of virtual friendships to their IRL analogues (perhaps even doing away with the pejorative acronym), we open ourselves up to a range of new possibilities for connection.

“The Internet represents a broadening of the spectrum of relationships we can have,” Jenna Wortham, a New York Times Magazine writer known for the prolificacy of her online social life, told me. “I have lots of online-, Gchat-only friendships and I love them. I’m very comfortable with the fact that I don’t know [these people] in real life and I don’t have any plans to.” The merit of these friendships lies in their mutabilityin your pocket, on your screen, in your living room. Discarding the distinction between real and virtual friendship does not doom us to a society in which tweets, chat, and e-mail are our only points of contact. It just means that the stranger we meet every day on the other side of our screens will no longer be a stranger, but someone that we know and trust.

Sunday, March 8, 2015


Since the City of Denton Banned Fracking, Texas GOP Moves to Pre-empt Local Control

Sunday, 08 March 2015By Candice Bernd, Truthout | Report 

    Carol Soph, a board member of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, the driving force behind Denton's fracking ban, speaks with Rep. Phil King about her concerns regarding a bill he introduced in response to the Denton ban that would gut cities' ability to introduce similar measures or regulations. King is this year's national chair of the American Legislative Exchange Council.
    "I do feel very strongly that air-quality measures and the engineering and scientific issues of oil and gas should be regulated at the state level, where the expertise is," Texas Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford) told a group of North Texans Monday, March 2, during a meeting in his Capitol office about a bill he introduced that would create barriers to a city's ability to regulate the oil and gas industry.

    The room was largely filled with people from Denton, which passed Texas' first ban on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) within city limits. Since the ban passed last fall in a landslide victory, state lawmakers connected to the oil and gas industry and to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have introduced a number of bills aimed at undermining local democracy, ostensibly to prevent other cities from following Denton's lead.

    Activists, however, says these bills would effectively kill local democracy so that citizens would lose the ability to introduce ballot referendums, and local governments would be unable to regulate industry to protect the health and safety of residents.

    "The reason that we're here is because the state did a terrible job. That's why the opposition [to oil and gas drilling] is growing," said Sharon Wilson, a Gulf coast organizer with Earthworks, in response to King's assessment.

    King continued to assert his confidence in state oil and gas regulators and told the group he plans to move forward with his bills. One of the bills would allow the state to reject a municipal ordinance and the other would require a city to assess the tax revenue cost of any attempt to regulate oil and gas.

    At the March 2 meeting, about 40 residents from Denton, Dallas, Arlington, Mansfield, Grand Prairie and Pantego expressed concerns about the state-level regulatory lapses that brought Denton to the point of banning fracking. These lapses are driving many other cities across the state to make their local oil and gas regulations stronger.

    As a resident of Denton myself, I watched the city struggle for more than five years to regulate the oil and gas industry's activities within city limits. Yet oil and gas companies refused to follow many of the rules the city adopted when it revised its gas drilling ordinance in 2013, claiming instead that their drilling activities were grandfathered under old rules. Finally, Denton was left with no other option but to ban fracking entirely in 2014, delivering a blow to the industry in a city on the same shale where the drilling technique was pioneered in the '90s.

    Years earlier, Denton City Council members had instructed residents to take their concerns about gas drilling to Austin, telling many of my neighbors that their hands were simply tied at the local level. Residents took their advice and traveled to Austin multiple times, but rather than finding the help they were seeking, Austin lawmakers at the time sent representatives of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group (DAG) back to Denton, telling them explicitly that it was a local issue. Now, as it turns out, they seem to be changing their minds.

    "We did work on [regulating drilling] at the state level, and Phil King and Myra Crownover and Tan Parker did everything they could to undermine getting anything passed at the state level," said former Fort Worth Rep. Lon Burnam, who now works for Public Citizen, referring to Denton County representatives. "So they've kind of reaped what they sowed."

    King's bills are part of a wider strategy emerging in Republican-dominated state legislatures this year to curtail municipalities' regulatory authority, including their ability to pass local ordinances and citizen-led ballot referendums. The legislation often comes at the behest of industries that stand to lose money because of regulations initiated in the municipalities where they operate.

    According to The New York Times, eight states led by Republicans have prohibited municipalities from passing paid sick day legislation in just the past two years. Other such pre-emption laws have barred cities from raising the minimum wage and regulating the activities of landlords. This year, Arkansas passed a law that blocks a city's ability to pass anti-discrimination laws that would protect LGBT people, and bills introduced in six states this session would follow Arkansas' lead.

    Many industries, including, most prominently, the restaurant industry and oil and gas interests, are working together this year through ALEC, which generates "model" legislation that advances the interests of its corporate members throughout state legislatures. Rep. King is serving as ALEC's national chair this year and introduced his two pre-emption bills with Denton's fracking ban in mind.

    King denied that his role in ALEC had anything to do with the introduction of his pre-emption bills and said the bills were not model legislation created by ALEC. The organization's corporate funders have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to King over the years.

    Two other bills filed in Austin this session would go even further than King's in gutting local regulatory power: One would prevent any city or county in Texas from banning fracking, and another would effectively kill home rule authority (a city's ability to pass laws to govern itself) so that cities cannot pass local ordinances.

    State lawmakers and the oil and gas industry isn't just responding to the blow delivered to fracking interests in Texas, but also hoping to beat back frack bans nationally. Bans on hydraulic fracturing passed in local municipalities across the nation during midterms elections. Those bans, and in particular, Denton's ban - have created a backlash from the oil and gas industry and conservative statehouses in the United States.

    Last month, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that only the state - not cities or counties - has the authority to regulate oil and gas drilling, effectively killing a municipality's ability to ban the drilling practice. But in other states, judges have ruled exactly the opposite, such as in New York's Supreme Court, which in July decided that local governments did have the authority to ban fracking. In another case in Pennsylvania, a court ruled that cities have the authority to regulate fracking, but not to outlaw it.

    "The reason all these [pre-emption] bills are being filed is [state legislators are] in a state of shock, because the people of Denton conducted an electoral revolution and passed this [fracking ban], and now they are reeling from it," Burnam said.

    Dentonites and other North Texans living on top of the Barnett Shale formation are fighting a state and industry attack on their right to determine what's best for their communities. They point out the hypocrisy of conservative lawmakers in Austin who rail against so-called "Big Government" at the federal level while simultaneously attempting to strip small municipal governments of their power.

    The grassroots activists have also been quick to point out conservative lawmakers' duplicity when it comes to property rights. They have largely framed their arguments at the state Capitol in those terms because state representatives often ignore other valuable environmental and health concerns.

    "The whole ALEC team, led by Phil King, is more considerate of the property rights of corporations than they are the property rights of homeowners and individuals, and this is what this battle is really about, because in Texas, the overriding law is deferential treatment to the subsurface mineral right owners over the surface homeowners," Burnam said.

    This contradiction was front-and-center during anti-fracking activists' meeting with Sen. Craig Estes about the bill he introduced, which mandates that cities compensate mineral owners if they pass regulations that cut into potential mineral profits.

    The activist group argued that mineral owners' rights to extract minerals and earn profits from them conflicts with the property rights of homeowners, because the industrial process of fracking can create property damage and decrease property values, as well as prevent homeowners from enjoying their property due to light, noise and air pollution created by fracking.

    Dentonites are also continuing efforts to defend their city's fracking ban at the local level. DAG members, with the help of Earthworks, are intervening in two court cases brought against the city by the Texas Oil and Gas Association and Texas' General Land Office, which argue the city's ban violates the Texas Constitution. The Denton groups asked that the cases be moved to Denton County from Travis County, and the court agreed.

    Meanwhile, Dentonites continue to testify at City Council meetings as council members once again work to revise the city's drilling ordinance, which will become the last word on drilling regulations if the city's ban is overturned in court.