Saturday, January 16, 2016

Where have all the flowers gone?

I came across a recipe I've had for over 20 years now.  The remarkable thing about it wasn't the age of it, or the recipe; it was where it came from.

It came from a thread on Salon, back when Salon aspired to replicate the salons of Paris in the early 20th century, and when comments weren't handled by Haloscan or livefyre, but were a separate place for conversations rather than comments on articles.  That part of Salon was called "Table Talk," and topics could be set up by commenters.  I frequented the Politics thread there, and the "White House" thread within it (probably something like reddit, though I've never been near reddit.  I'm old and grey and full of sleep.).  It was, as I described it there once, the neighborhood where you didn't stop at the red lights, unless you were a regular.  Other denizens of "Table Talk" considered "Politics" more or less the insane asylum.  It was the Clinton Administration, 8 years of impeachment and investigation and Monica Lewinsky and "I did not have sex with that woman!", and we were quite partisan.

Except at Christmas, when we'd retire to newly created threads to behave like friends at a bar, enjoying virtual drinks and swapping recipes and other convivial topics.  You can't produce a recipe like this in comments now, much less easily print it out; but the recipe reminded of the best times on the internet, before it became what it is today.

Maybe it's a sociological version of Gresham's Law I'm not familiar with:  the economic idea that bad money drives out good.  Certainly the other users of "Table Talk" were happy to keep those of us in Politics (and especially in "White House," where things got white hot with regularity) away from the more civilized discourse.  But those days are gone on the internet, as best I can tell (reddit has such a reputation I don't want to learn the ropes of the place; I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled, and walk upon a beach, and maybe dare to eat a peach.).

That recipe reflects the true sense of community we had on "Table Talk."  Narrow and confined, but no more or less so than any social club, any gathering of friends, any happy church congregation.  Blogs came after "Table Talk," and were supposed to be the newer, better source for on-line community.  At any rate, "Table Talk" was left behind.  When Facebook opened up, everybody fled there, leaving the blogs behind.  Now I hear Facebook is a bit of a wasteland, a series of enclaves where ignorant armies clash by night.

Maybe it's not quite that bad, but I don't know of anyplace on the internet, aside from a foodie blog, where recipes would be swapped with such camaraderie; and even then, the center point of the discussion is the blogger's post.  "Table Talk" was almost purely democratic:  so long as the new thread was in keeping with the place it was created, it was allowed, and the conversation was monitored by the users.  It was also, as I said, printer friendly; or I wouldn't have that memento of what now seems a heady and happier time.

Dark, dark, dark, it all goes down into the dark.  Why, I am not sure.  The early Church Fathers had their answers, but I'm not sure I'm comfortable with them anymore.  Or maybe I am, and I just hesitate to admit it, because it cuts off so much discussion or consideration to do so.  All I know is there was once a hope of such community on the intertoobs, and now that seems to be completely gone.  There are sparks of light on distant shores, but they are flashes only.  The worst of human nature takes over, again and again and again, and the vast wasteland that TV supposedly turned into is as nothing compared with the morass that has become the internet.  It's a place for shilling and shopping, for screaming and howling, and nowhere do I find a place that offered the satisfactions of conversation and possibilities of community that I remember from the days of "Table Talk."

It wasn't idyllic; it wasn't perfect; I remember well enough how foul the air could be in those threads. But it had possibility that seems to have drained out of the internet altogether.  We didn't even drain the swamp only to find ourselves up to our asses in alligators.  The internet turned into the lowest place on the planet, where everything drains in and nothing really drains away.  Even swamps serve to filter the water and promote life in abundance.

Maybe the better comparison is a sewer:  stagnant, rank, and reeking of failure, failed hope and failed possibility.

Looking at that recipe and the note attached to it, one from me to the person who posted the recipe, me thinking her for the information, I remember when meetings on the internet were like conversations, and virtual friendships seemed as real and substantial as those in the real world.  I find that less and less on-line, now.  That one concrete glimpse into the past made me realize how much has been lost, and will never be recovered.

When will they every learn?


  1. Reminds me of a place where several reverends, a monk, intellectuals, and others, including rural hicks like me gathered.

    In the absence of shared values rules of discourse might preserve civil discourse. In the absence of that, someone taking responsibility for keeping things from going down hill might. In the absence of those it goes downhill.

    I'd rather have a tiny commenting community than a big one in which the nasty drives out the worth while.

  2. I agree. The sad thing is, what a pale shadow it is.

    That, and I miss the "Table Talk" format.

  3. Facebook can be bad, but it's not all bad, and we sometimes share recipes. On occasion, I'm tempted to leave because of the annoyances inflicted by Zuckerberg and crew, because FB is free, and you should take what you get and not complain. Of course, the users make money for them, but no matter. I've pretty much learned to ignore the ads.

    If I left, I'd lose touch with people with whom I want to engage, and, as you say, it's not happening now on blogs, except with the most popular blogs, and I know my friends and I we would not keep up by email.

    There are controls on FB that can make the experience more pleasant. Since I find it hard to say no to friend requests if we have friends in common, every now and then, I cull he herd of friends who don't engage with me at all. Brutal, I know.

    Y'all should join up. I'd love to have you as Facebook friends.