Monday, March 17, 2014

Mining the Internet for Fun & Profit

By Steve Evans

Going over my notes this morning for a screenplay idea that mixes the phenomenon of social media with independent film makers and the curious world of film buffs. They call themselves "cinephiles." I've discovered their behavior, at least online, is more like a pack of rabid dogs.

Probably the most interesting part of the project so far has involved hanging out on a particular film forum – it's easily the most pretentious movie forum on the Internet – and observing a group of self-absorbed individuals try to one-up each other in their knowledge of world cinema when they bother to talk about cinema at all. This in and of itself was fascinating, like looking into a terrarium where all the creatures breathe their own fumes until their behavior gets a little wacky.

It took about a month to identify the prime roosters and the cackling hens for closer observation and just ignore everyone else. When you observe Internet behavior, a group dynamic may at first seem like chaos. Just random comments punctuated occasionally by disagreements that rapidly unravel into hissy fits. But after a while an interesting thing happens. The people communicating on a forum lose themselves in their performance. Even among those who may be aware they are affecting a performance, it still comes across as some peculiar form of method acting. They become so lost in themselves that their true nature begins to bleed through.

Who's really who? Is it me or is it you?
Sure, you can’t really judge anyone by an online persona, much less be certain they are what they seem to be. The Kinks’ song “Lola” comes to mind. But the pure, unadulterated, stream-of-consciousness rhetoric that flows from their minds onto a website is a fascinating thing to observe. Say all you want about Stanley Kubrick’s monkeys at the opening of 2001. The real primate behavior is happening on Internet forums. And it’s a hoot to watch.

I studied their habits, made notes of their patterns and watched for character traits that could be leveraged. Call it behavioral psychology on an Internet forum. Pretty soon it all had a predictable rhythm to it. Mostly, I wanted to identify a number of core personality traits among forum dwellers in the 21st century. In this movie forum when not arguing bitterly with each other, a smaller group spends their days compiling and ranking lists of films, then complimenting each other's lists (at least when they're not criticizing their lists). The closest thing to this behavior that we can encounter in nature is the muskrat, which gathers random collections of objects and then marvels upon them. Making endless Top 10 lists is a curious form of mental masturbation, but watching this occur wasn't very helpful to my screenwriting project. 

So I started posting the occasional comment of my own, usually in mild disagreement with some other forum participant. The results were always the same: an immediate and angry defense of the wounded individual's original position (typically something trite like “why John Wayne sux.” Remember, I said this was the most pretentious film forum on the Internet). It soon became obvious that no one was interested in anything but their own opinions. It was like Napoleon had been cloned a hundred times over and gone to war with himself.

"To war!" cried Rufus T. Firefly. And why not?

So I began offering more provocative comments to see what kind of response might come back. Oh, the hatred and vitriol came swiftly, my brothers and sisters. I tossed more bread crumbs on the trail. And crows dropped from the sky to squabble and bicker over the quantity and quality of the scraps I had thrown. For variety I floated a few trial balloons to gauge reactions. The screams of protest and sudden attacks were wildly disproportional to the comments I had made. Their accusations would have been horrendous, were they not so unintentionally funny. I had to consider the source and press on.

Some of the individuals I observed are astonishing in their stupidity. One particularly immature guy openly brags about buying and using the illegal drug MDMA "using taxpayer money" when his home address in London can be found easily by anyone who wants to look. I wonder when the police will be paying him a visit, assuming the fool doesn't OD first.

This is the sort of individual who populates this Internet forum. Their credibility is a joke, but their comments are a goldmine of opportunity.

Then it occurred to me that watching these people dance for my benefit was a lot like directing a movie, except with actors unaware they were on stage. In fact, it was easier than directing a film, ridiculously so, because the performers were eagerly willing to work for no pay. Had this been an abattoir, they would have shuffled along like bleating sheep to slaughter.

All Things Must Pass
In the last few days I turned up the heat steadily and as fast as it seemed possible without spoiling everything by getting myself kicked off the site (forum moderators are no smarter or better than the people they moderate. They’re like power-drunk traffic cops itching to write a ticket). I pushed it as far as I thought it could go. I even argued with the moderators. Just when it seemed a mob would rise up and demand my crucifixion, I shut off the account and vanished like Keyser Sรถze. Probably saved the forum manager the trouble of doing it.

Was it manipulation? I’ve considered the implications of that. If it was, the people being manipulated were willing and eager participants, each trying to hurl insults and arguments nastier than the previous one. They certainly rose to the challenge. Was it unethical? No. If you make a silly face at someone and they try to gun you down with a machine gun, the reaction is hardly proportional to the sin you've committed.

At the end of the day it was worth it.

In looking over several months’ worth of notes, I’ve got about three dozen character studies, at least half of whom would probably fit the clinical definition of a sociopath. Very nice source material. Also a good assortment of neurotics, bullies, harpies and harlequins – in sum, society in a microcosm, only amplified through their common trait: an arrogance so profound as to move a reasonable person past being appalled and into that rarefied realm of wry amusement.

There’s enough material here for at least two screenplays once I hit upon the right story and unleash these characters on the real world.

Farewell to the Lunatic Fringe
This has been an absorbing experience. I've learned people will argue about anything and need little reason to do so. The dumb ones will even reverse their position and argue the opposite side if you just wait a while for them to forget the first debate. The anonymity of the Internet makes this particularly useful, in terms of character research, because hiding behind a mask gives a person a false sense of confidence. Internet dwellers tend to be much more brave and bold than they would dare to be face to face. So they let their guard down, acting more obnoxious than they might ordinarily, and that enables the careful observer to get at a deeper truth about human interactions. The Internet is truly like the Wild West, a vast and untamed land where anything goes. It’s liberating and appalling all at once. It allows people to act uncivilized – and apparently enjoy it – from the relative safety of hiding behind a computer.

I think a couple of the smarter playas on the movie-geek forum have come to realize that they’ve been played. Some will never know. But for most of these Very Serious People, you can bet they’ve already gone running down a different street, barking their heads off and chasing another car. This will go on until the forum inevitably implodes and the angry people who practically live there will be forced to find something else to fill the vacuum of their existence.

What an experience to roam in their midst. To paraphrase Kesey, "One flew east, one flew west, and one flew over the cuckoo's nest."

There's a story somewhere in all their madness. 

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2014 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Love it. There's hardly a forum left on the Internet where children and idiots aren't ruining the experience. I think I know which forum you're talking about and you are right. They are a bunch of petty pricks. I can only imagine how stirred up they got when their authority was questioned.

    Can't wait to see the story that comes out of this.


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