When the time came to submit my columnist pictures, I thought I needed to prepare the editor for what he was about to receive. The column would run in CyberTimes, the online section in which irreverence is always allowed. Still, the film was headed to a publication of The New York Times, and the pictures were definitely not dignified.
My e-mail said: “Just a note to let you know pictures are on the way. We’ve offered a real range–from fairly serious to downright silly. We had a great time with it–until the California Highway Patrol showed up and told us to stop. I figure it’s a good omen; I was disappointed only, that the officer declined to be photographed.”
The editor sounded pleased. “Would have been nice to get a shot of your being arrested,” he wrote. “Should we try again?”
With that message, I knew my new-life was going to work out.
They ran the hitchhiking picture: the reporter on the run, the perfect choice. For me, the decision to jump into the online world was a decision to flee the precepts of an industry that preaches more about what you can’t do that what you can. I was running off to join the circus of modern writing, a place where you can have the childhood that the newspapers never allowed.
I had been planning the move for years–long before the news business embraced the Internet. In the fall of 1991, a friend passed along some bizarre material that had mysteriously appeared on her computer–an intense, meticulous discussion of the TV show Twin Peaks. The discussion itself was lost on me, but the notion that people were communicating by computer sent me into a spin.
People were writing whatever they wanted, without erecting transmission towers or buying printing presses, and without working for people who could afford to do so. I had spent four years in newspapers at that point, and major papers were folding every few months. Opportunities were diminishing and I wondered about the future for people who worked with words. The Internet, I believed, would save us, and the words.
Six years later I finally made my move. The Internet had become a writer’s carnival, a brash, bustling domain of ideas. Fascists and the UFO crowd jostle with people who make a career of hating Barney, and they make their proclamations in raw, shameless tones. Doctors, soothsayers, bikers and the Bible; the Internet has room for them all.
Without a doubt, the Internet was where I belonged, and not just because I love the circus. I’ve been fascinated with its development as a medium for the masses. For the first time, individuals have the ability to speak to millions, and the millions can talk back. So what do they say? What do they do? Whom do they meet?
The Internet provides a platform for the Manson Family as readily as it supplies a support group for a woman suffering from breast cancer. A public-interest lawyer argues that easy access to information will lower the price of legal services. Families whose children have been murdered reach for electronic catharsis; they put their losses before the digital world, and even if no one finds the killers, the families feel better for telling their stories.
But this carousel of ideas can leave readers looking for solid ground. Whether people are engaging in serious discussion or wacky posturing, the barrage of opinions has shot a hole in the Web’s credibility. Now that the sideshows have warmed up the crowd, writers are entering the ring. On the Internet, the credibility of legitimate reporting merges with the personality of the person telling the story. Anyone can tell a story–and on the Internet, everyone does–but the well-told story still prevails.
That’s not to say it’s a place to get eloquent. You’re still out there with the juvenile and the silly, and people like it that way. The Internet is many things, but above all, the Internet is not dignified; people present themselves as raw and real. For me, the hardest part of online writing after years in newspapers has been to kill the punishing internal editor, that domineering force that always tells me to grow up.
The first time I killed him, I was writing a column about some young programmers who set up a Web site for tarot card readings. This exercise in programming inadvertently attracted hundreds of thousands of people to the site, seeking a spiritual outlet.
I started the column with: “You don’t have to be a believer to start a religion anymore. You don’t have to suffer. You don’t have to preach.” Good enough, I thought. Then another line popped out: “And best of all,” it said, “you don’t have to talk to God.”
I don’t know where that line came from-probably not divine inspiration. But my next instinct said, get off the keyboard. You’re out of line. You can’t write that. I got up and paced around and thought about it. And the more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that I could not write a better line.
If I had been writing for a newspaper, I would have knocked it out immediately. Fighting to keep it would have proven useless in a world where editors strive not to offend. But this was the Internet. People go there to offend and to be offended. I left the line in the story and it ran with no questions asked.
With that first killing, my wishes from years ago had come true. Like a lot of people, I went into newspapers not because I didn’t have opinions, but because I did. I started out wanting to put words together and ended up putting governmental failings together; restricted, in the name of objectivity, to words that were necessarily hard, cold and dry. I became objective. I killed the prankster. I spent a decade driving all personality out of my work.
But now, every day, I revive the prankster. CyberTimes wants personality.
In a medium where people go to meet others, seek support and bare their souls, the audience wants a personal connection with writers. With that understanding, the editor of CyberTimes, Rob Fixmer, encourages writers to experiment. He gives us great sanction because he wants readers to have a sense of what the writers are really like. “The reader feels more like a participant in the process,” he said. “It’s far more personal communication. It’s a type of communication that makes the writers more vulnerable and the readers more likely to see into their souls.
He had sent that message clearly even before I called him to double-check. He sent it with the e-mail that sought a picture of my arrest and with his enthusiasm for off-the-wall stories. So I’ve pushed–and on occasion I’ve gone too far. But I chalk those experiences up to the notion that one of the highest purposes of an editor is to save the writers from themselves.
It can be scary, this new practice of self-exposure, after years of hiding in the fortress of objective reporting. But it’s not scary to someone I’ve been forced to meet: the person I was at the age of 17, the one who was afraid of getting thrown off the school paper because she liked to smoke at lunch with the bad kids across the street.
I spend the days remembering her when I work, and understanding that she never went away. Remembering, at the touch of every key, the thrill of driving off in the middle of the night to the house of a friend or a foe, with a carload of crisp toilet paper ready to be thrown.