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THIS IS NOT A TEST with Michael Phillips

Trolls: they’re not just under bridges and on the Internet – THIS IS NOT A TEST #7 (transcript)

Published February 7, 2015

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Ah the sound – the sound! I’m coming to you today with and through a new piece of gadgetry. It’s called a Cloudlifter, and basically it gooses up the signal from the microphone before it gets to the preamp on the board. It does that by using the phantom power from the board, so no power cables or anything, just a little blue box. Fascinating, I know, but it’s a pretty impressive little blue box. If you talk into a dynamic microphone like the Heil PR40 that everyone seems to use – me included – or a Shure SM7B – that everyone who isn’t using the Heil seems to use -or even a lowly SM58 or something else that’s not a condenser mic, you should check it out. Make yourself sound official and all. You can never have too much signal, you know.

It’s funny talking to you about microphones and recording. It’s only recently that anyone would know what the hell I’m talking about as far as any of this stuff is concerned. It used to all be the domain of The Soundman, the engineer. The geek. It’s a mysterious and complicated world unto itself, or at least it used to be. In this ProTools Garageband world it’s become a little more commonplace, and I think that’s a good thing. Everyone should know how to record good audio. They should start teaching it in 4th grade, instead of teaching kids about the California missions. Anyway, I like talking about recording equipment and guitar equipment, I could talk about it for hours, and at some point here I probably will. But not today, so don’t tune out just yet.

A seagull flew over the house a little while ago, making seagull noises, which is strange because we’re about 20 miles from the sea, as the gull flies. I’ve never seen a seagull here in Alhambra. Maybe it lost its mind from eating tainted french fries on the beach or something. If you have an answer, let me know.

I mentioned last time that I was getting a new computer – and it’s here. It’s hooked up and running and the move is just like I knew it would be – a little painful – or maybe a lot painful – but ultimately for the better. The better – ha. I have such a love/hate relationship with computers. I make my living on the Internet, which is weird enough in itself. Though if you were around and conscious back in the early web days you could make money working with the things. I made money designing websites if you can believe that, even lived off it for a couple of years. That used to actually be a thing, website design. Not so much anymore. It’s still a thing, but it’s a way more specialized thing, and you have to devote your life to keeping up with the technology, and I’ve never been one to devote my life to anything.

But just spending time in front of computers…so much time. 90% of that time, for me anyway, is spent on the Internet as opposed to just typing or — well, I can’t think of anything else I use the computer for other than the Internet. You could probably argue that most people wouldn’t even need a computer if there was no Internet. And we certainly wouldn’t need phones with screens.

But here we are, and the Internet has gone so far beyond its initial promise or what the ideas were that were bouncing around in the heads of the people who created it. Those people were scientists and engineers and nerds and they actually had debates about whether commercial traffic should even be allowed on the Internet. I guess you could say that the people who argued against commercial traffic lost that fight.

But the commercialization of the Internet only changed things a little, as far as most of us are concerned. I mean, it changed things a lot for the scientists and academics that created it – it changed the entire reason they wanted an Internet: which was to free up and exchange knowledge and important information. Which it only “kind of” does now. In small, dark corners. One thing that didn’t change though was Internet trolls. You know trolls – they pop up everywhere with a single goal: to disrupt, to cause as much chaos and misery as they can. They use tried and true formulas that came about in the early days of the Internet, on usenet. usenet, if you never saw it, was kind of a pre-web version of discussion forums. That’s where trolling was born and perfected.

Are we meaner now than we used to be, as people? Are trolls something that wouldn’t exist without the Internet? I don’t think so. Maybe the anonymity of the Internet makes it easier for some people to be mean, but back in the day I heard a lot of people yelling FAG in my direction, because for some reason punk rock was seen as faggotry by a lot of people. I didn’t get that, but maybe it was all the leather, I don’t know. I thought it was just rock and roll. Come to think of it though, a lot of the places we played when I was in punk bands were gay clubs during most of the week, they just opened their doors to the punk rock misfits one or two nights a week. But to a lot of people who saw punk rock as something that was encroaching on their awesome classic rock world, FAG was a catch all insult, and something they said because shouting, “You’re different!” from a passing car doesn’t carry as much weight.

So we’ve always been mean to each other. And I know what you’re thinking – what about the comments section on YouTube, mjp? Surely that cesspool is a sign of our imminent destruction and the coming of the end times?! Well, comment sections everywhere are funny things. Before the Internet your local paper had – and still has, if you still have a local paper – letters to the editor. That’s where the trolls lived before they lived on YouTube and in your favorite forum. There and in local city council meetings.

But trolls and negativity in general have been with us for a while. Like a lot of things. the Internet just amplifies them. It’s easy to become abusive when you’re ranting at a username on a screen and you’re anonymous yourself. It’s a lot harder to do it if you consider that there is a human behind that name on the screen. In a piece last year, Psychology Today reported on a Canadian study that came right out and called trolls Narcissists, Psychopaths, and Sadists. Their words, not mine.

There is a belief that trolls wouldn’t “say those things to your face,” and that’s probably true of most of them, but not always. If you think about it, you’ve probably been trolled in real life. Anyone who has stepped onto a stage has probably been trolled. They call it heckling, but its goals are the same – to disrupt, to cause misery. Though I have to admit that we also trolled some audiences from the stage if they weren’t responding the way we wanted them to. If an audience was dead I’d go up to a microphone and say something like, “Sonny, let’s play Stairway to Heaven.” He’d look at them for a minute and say, “Maybe that’s what you fucking deserve!” So, yeah, intentional provocation. Tit for tat, as they say.

I’ve even been trolled at a museum, by none other than Linda Bukowski. It’s a strange story, maybe because when Carol and I lived in San Pedro we saw Linda quite a bit around town, she came to Carol’s art studio, we even went out to dinner. We were pals. Well, Carol and Linda were pals, I was just kind of hanging around. Linda would look at me and say cryptic things like, “I know who you are.” At the first Huntington Museum get together, when they had a presentation to acknowledge Linda’s donation of a lot of Bukowski’s papers to the museum, we were still friendly. In fact she kind of glommed on to Carol that night – “Oh, I’m glad you’re here, I have to introduce you to so and so.” She wouldn’t let us leave her side. We still have her wine-stained program from that night, she had handed it to Carol – “here, you take this.”

But then there was another Huntington soiree a couple of years later, when the exhibition of Bukowski crap opened. I went to that one by myself, and had a slightly different evening. Everything was going great. Roni from the German Bukowski society – and the Bukowski forum – spoke for a bit – a lot of people spoke, Marina Bukowski spoke, Linda spoke, everyone was having a good time. When the presentation was finished and everyone was leaving I went up front to say hello to Linda. We had a pleasant conversation – mostly about Carol and her art – but then a guy named Michael Meloan walked up to us. When Linda saw him she jabbed her finger into my chest and said, “You! You wrote the most terrible things about this man! How could you be so insensitive? You don’t know anything about him! He is a beautiful man and he was Hank’s friend. You have no concept of responsibility! That goes out world-wide and you are putting down this man – I think you are on a power trip! That’s what it is.”

She was right up in my face yelling at me. I was trying to calm her down and saying, you know, “hey, take it easy” – then I thought I might expertly diffuse the situation with some self-deprecation, so I said, “Linda…you know I can’t help it, I’m an asshole.” But that didn’t exactly work. She said, “Go ahead, laugh it off like you always do. Laugh it off. Laugh it off. You say these awful things about a man who was a dear friend of Hank’s. You never even met Hank, and he wouldn’t have been your friend!

So there I was being publicly trolled – baited, pushed into a fight, but I didn’t see the point of it. I know Linda hadn’t read what I said, someone else had described it to her and probably made it sound much worse than it really was. What I had said about Meloan was in a post about a reading at Vroman’s here in Pasadena, when The Continual Condition was published. I said, “why this guy continues to show up in conjunction with Bukowski is a mystery to me. He’s a terrible, meek, stumbling speaker, even when reading his own writing from a page. This seems to sum him up; Joe Frank said: “Nobody evokes a sense of mood and place quite like Meloan.” Charles Bukowski said: “Mike Meloan is a jerk-off.”

That was it. I said he was “a terrible, meek, stumbling speaker,” and he was. Bukowski called him a jerk-off, I just quoted him. I saw Meloan outside after the screaming had ended and I told him I was sorry if I offended him and he said, “Oh…I didn’t even read it, don’t worry about it.”

So she was trolling me, but I did troll back a little. Mostly because it just seemed so weird and ridiculous, the whole thing. And because I knew she had been hitting a bottle of rum that she was carrying around in a Ziploc bag for some reason. So I didn’t see any harm in throwing a few lines back at her. After she finished yelling at me she turned to a small group of people and said, “You should come down to the house and we can go have dinner at Musso,” I was still standing there so I said, “Can I come too?”

Anyway, she does that to a lot of people – befriends them and then turns on them. Hmm…a lot like Bukowski himself. Maybe they were soul mates.

But that’s probably part the psychology behind a lot of trolling. The cruel irony is a lot of trolls want to be members of the communities they troll, but their weird, awkward behavior ostracizes them, then their persecution complex kicks in and they begin to rant about the closed system, the old-boys-club that won’t let them in. They don’t see that it was as self-fulfilling prophecy, but it was, it always is.

the older I get the less disagreeable I seem to be, but I am a disagreeable person, I’ll own up to that. I want to be more kind. For me and for everyone around me and the world that has to deal with me. I’d like to blame my general disagreeable-ness – disagreeability? – on being in punk bands when I was young, and meeting up with a lot of resistance, indifference and outright hostility. Or on just generally being an outsider where most things are concerned. I’d like to blame it on that, but that wouldn’t be entirely true. On the Bukowski forum I can certainly be as disagreeable and reactionary and mean as anyone. But the thing is, people who are foolish enough to start communities online do it because they are passionate about something, and they want to talk about it and learn about it. And if you invest a lot of your time and money into something, anything, you become protective of that thing. If you’re protective and you don’t really suffer fools, well…sometimes bad things can happen.

I’d say about half of the trolls we get on the Bukowski forum show up just to stir up shit, and we recognize them and get rid of them pretty quickly. They aren’t difficult to stop. But the other half are those people who have a genuine interest in the subject, but are just so socially inept or awkward that they’re never going to fit in. It’s the self-fulfilling prophecy I mentioned. But it doesn’t surprise me that they’re there. If you’re a socially inept person the Internet is like a dream come true. You can interact with people without actually dealing with them face to face. But the problem is we’re communicating with text most of the time, so you don’t get any visual cues or vocal inflection, so bad attempts at humor or irony can be taken literally, and then you’re screwed.

If you show up at a party at someone’s house and make awkward sexual advances and clumsily insert yourself into every conversation, you’re not going to be a big hit. Then when people start to ignore you, if you lose your mind and take a shit on the coffee table while you’re screaming at the host, you’re going to be shown the door, and odds are it isn’t going to be pretty. That’s exactly what happens to the 50% of trolls who start out as sincere participants. Their inability to behave like a human or read human cues – or often literal warnings – doom them to failure. Then after they’re kicked out of the party they stand in the front yard shaking their fists and calling the party elitist and exclusionary. Those people are never going to get it, they’re never going to get anything. The fact that they’re doing those things on the Internet is only because there is an Internet. If there wasn’t, they’d be holed up in rooms doing it through an endless stream of angry letters and feeling the same feelings.

I’ve just been talking about communities, which is where trolling started, but now with the rise of the sites that feature individuals and not topics – things like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and all of that shit, a more personal trolling has risen up, but that’s a different kind of troll. It’s bullying by people who generally wouldn’t be bullies on the street. It’s uglier and harder to shrug off or ignore than community trolling, and it seems to be about 100 times worse if you’re female, and worse yet if you’re a young female. That to me is tragic, and makes community trolling by comparison seem like nothing more than a nuisance. I often say that I’m glad the Internet was not around when I was 20, but I can’t imagine what kind of impact it has on adolescents. We’re so fragile and impressionable, and it’s too young to be exposed to so much potential darkness and just…malevolence.

When the web was just getting started there were a lot of people who said, “What about kids? We should think before we just let them lose on here…” Now I don’t have any kids, which made it easy for me to say, but I always said I’d let my kids have unrestricted access to the Internet, and to everything else that’s considered “adult” for that matter. I think trying to prevent kids from doing something only makes them want to do that something more.

But now I’m not so sure. I wouldn’t want my 10 year old daughter to be on Twitter. Or one of the million other things I don’t even know about that the kids use that are even worse. I don’t know what it’s all doing to us, what impact it’s going to have on our future. We call these kids “digital natives,” but I think that’s a load of shit. They adapt quickly to technology, but they are still the same kids we were. They’re still raw and unformed and they’re still going to grow up and get jobs and become politicians and run shit. What’s that going to look like?

I guess I shouldn’t worry. I’m sure old people said the same thing when radio was invented, or rock and roll. “Jesus Christ, Evelyn, would you look at these kids! These shiftless greasers! What’s going to become of this country?!” They soon found out, the rock and roll generation was just as useless when they grew up and took over as all of the previous generations. I sure thought my generation was going to change things – we grew up during the Vietnam war and hippies and equality man! We all hated wars, right? We were all feminists, right? But the first Presidential election I was eligible to vote in, my generation elected Ronald Reagan and voted down the Equal Rights Amendment for women. It’s as if we thought a return to Leave it to Beaver and putting women back into the kitchen where they belonged was the answer. In the end all the politicians my generation elected were the same, all of the so called leaders, just as idiotic and corrupt. All we did was perfect the mediocrity we inherited.

That election of Reagan did two things, it inspired the second generation of punk rock, gave them something to be against, and it set us down the path of polarization that lead to where we are now. How did that happen? Well, if you’re old enough you might remember that discussions about politics on TV and radio used to seem a lot more balanced. That’s because we had something called “equal time,” which was a rule that said if you gave half an hour to a conservative nutbag you also had to give a half an hour to an opposing liberal nutbag. That effectively prevented us from having something as biased and agenda-driven as Fox News. You couldn’t have Fox News because half of the time it would have had to be opposing viewpoints. But the Reagan administration put an end to that equal time rule, and what we ended up with is the toxic and moronic political discussion – quote unquote – that we have now.

Ah, but I digress yet again. A few years ago there were a lot of articles about trolls on mainstream websites and they all asked the same questions in the final paragraph: “what can we do?” “when will the Internet be free of trolls?” the answer to that is easy: we won’t have trolls when we take all the humans off the Internet. Or when the Internet dies somehow and we’re all faced with ourselves again, minus selfies and car key locator apps.

I don’t see that happening any time soon. In the meantime all we can do is look up and watch the unlikely seagulls fly past. And try to be more kind to each other.

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