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Star Wars, The Internet, and Me

Learning to be a citizen of the internet. Or, why I'll be mad if you spoil The Last Jedi.

December 14, 2017Filed under blog#friendship#star wars#the internetMarkdown source

A friend and I were talking a few days about an interesting quirk we both share: spoilers are one thing; spoilers for Star Wars are something else entirely—something profoundly wrong. On the one hand, of course, this is silly: spoilers are spoilers; the sentiment is a reflection of our deeper emotional attachment to the Star Wars universe. But it got me thinking.

My own journey with Star Wars has been long and winding. When I was a kid, I loved the movies and books—beyond a reasonable enjoyment. I obsessed. For a time it filled all my spare hours.1 (And I was homeschooled and smart, so that was a lot of hours.) It eventually became so bad, when I was in sixth grade, that my parents counseled me that I needed to do something to change, because it was consuming way too much of my time. I took six months off, and came back able to enjoy the universe—movies, books (and more books!), comics, etc.—without it dominating my mental life as it had before that.

I kept reading books and comics through high school and college. Somewhere in late middle school I found fan forums for the LucasArts video games (“LucasForums”, now defunct) and got my first taste of online interaction—I “took my first step into a larger world,” you might say—discussing the details of the Expanded Universe in one board, and discussing and arguing ethics, religion, and philosophy in another. (Yes, on a Star Wars video game forum. You can’t make people not talk about those things; the best you can do is keep them segregated from the nominal topic of discussion in a forum. And people want to talk about those subjects with friends, people they have other common interests with.)

Midway through high school—during prime Star Wars fandom time in the late prequel era—I found my way to (“The Jedi Council Forums”), and if the LucasForums had been my introduction to the online world, is where I “grew up” online in many ways. Over much of the next decade, I was an active participant in all sorts of things on those forums—from fan fiction-writing and contests, to extended debates on the merits of certain ongoing storylines in the books that made up the Expanded Universe, to the kinds of little controversies that embroil fan communities everywhere over this author’s choices and that author’s body of work and so on. Eventually, late in college, I spent over a year as one of the moderators of the Expanded Universe (strictly speaking, the non-video-games part) forum there.

And then I got married, and I told Jaimie that for our sake I was done with moderating at the end of my senior year in college. Moderating an internet forum well is an enormous amount of work. It’s a kind of community-building and it entails all the kinds of difficult work that entails. The fact that it’s online makes it more and not less difficult, in many ways. In the year I was there, we dealt with the gamut: ordinary forum things like overly aggressive arguers and trolls, and less ordinary things like helping a user who seemed to deal with borderline personality disorder manage her behavior and be a productive member of the community. I learned an enormous amount there, and much of what I do in online communities today remains deeply influenced by the lessons I learned then.

It’s not really a surprise, then, that I have a visceral reaction to Star Wars spoilers in a way that I don’t for, say, the next Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. If I get totally spoiled about how Avengers: Infinity War plays out before I go see it, well… okay. It’ll be mildly annoying. Something about the ways that I invested in Star Wars and the ways my encounters with it at a broader cultural level were so important to my formation make it matter a lot more to me.2

There’s an important question, of course, whether that kind of formation was good for me. Parts of it quite obviously wasn’t. My parents were right to encourage me to take a real and serious break when I was 12. But more than that, they were wise to take the tack of challenging me to think carefully about how to deal with it, rather than simply mandating a particular response themselves. Had they mandated it—which would have been the easier course, I’m sure!—it likely would have backfired and left me resentful of them and unmoved on the actual issue, for one. For another, learning to discipline myself and recognize and head off unhealthy obsessions was itself an important part of my spiritual, intellectual, and emotional formation. Dealing with a relatively benign obsession, and learning to deal with it in a helpful and thoughtful way, was very good for me.

Likewise, my participation in those forums had its risks, even if they were much lower than some of the moral panics of the time suggested. (Predators, it turned out, may have been lurking in chat rooms somewhere, but many corners of the internet were pretty safe.) The bigger risks to me were risks of time-wasting and getting sucked into pointless or meaningless arguments. But because the forums I ended up in were well-run, they ended up instead being a training ground for how to conduct discourse online in a civil way—to disagree, even deeply (and even, sometimes, about silly things) without resorting to insults and attacks, to argue the merits instead of the quality of the person making an argument. It also afforded me opportunities to make mistakes talking about things that didn’t matter, rather than primarily about things that did. If I annoyed someone with my view of Jacen Solo in The New Jedi Order, well… okay, better that than mishandling the gospel or misrepresenting Scripture’s teaching on something. Along those same lines, I had opportunities to lead online in a safe environment where most of what I was dealing wasn’t that serious, and I had lots of help including from many people much older than me to deal with the more serious things.

Last but not least, because I knew deeply and well the shape of what was, in many ways, internet discourse at its best, I also was well-primed to recognize two things.

The first is when things don’t look like that. I spent a year or so in college on conservative political news sites and comment threads, and while the mid-2000s were the heyday of blogs and commenting—in some really wonderful ways that I miss—even then much of what was floating around in political forums was the kind of toxic rhetoric that has become mainstream since.3 I jumped out of those communities because I was able to recognize, precisely because of my experience with The Jedi Council Forums, that this was not a model of good discussion on the internet.

The second is the way internet discourse and friendship are simultaneously delightful and very limited. There were people I very much enjoyed getting to know over the years, and a few I considered friends. But the limitations of those relationships were obvious (much, I imagine, as the limitations of friendships conducted solely through letter-writing in ages past was). Text is a delightful medium, and it affords certain things that face-to-face interaction doesn’t, especially time for precision and accuracy in communication. But it takes away as well as gives: your wording must be so precise, because otherwise it far more easily risks misunderstanding. Language must often be more conciliatory in text than it would in person to achieve the same effect, for the simple reason that there is no such thing as tone. And ten thousand emojis are not worth one real, sympathetic smile across a room for expressing, “I disagree with you, but I mean no harm in my disagreement.” The internet affords many opportunities to connect with people we would otherwise never meet, but it does not and cannot substitute for the kinds of friendships we have in person.

This latter insight was in many ways the first, foundational layer for much of my thinking on the goods and ills offered by the internet since—thinking that has come out especially in Winning Slowly, and increasingly also is finding a home in the reading and research projects I mentioned here earlier in the week. It also continues to inform the way I think about many other relationships I have now online. Though I am part of a number of several really delightful online communities, I never allow those relationships to become my substitutes for doing the work of building friendships with people face to face. And I also take the opportunity, whenever I can, to add face-to-face components to those relationships! One of my closest friends now is someone I met via a group of Christian developers I’m part of online—but he’s also someone I’ve spent many hours with in person now, and it was those hours in person that dramatically changed the character of our friendship. Similarly, another of my best friends is someone I get to talk to mostly only via chat now—but we had years of face-to-face relationship as foundation to stand on.

So the net of it all is good, I think. I’m grateful for the ways Star Wars has been a part, and an important part, of my life. (So don’t spoiler The Last Jedi for me!)

  1. Or at least, those in which I wasn’t re-reading The Lord of the Rings yet again. I was a nerdy kid.

  2. If I had grown up having a parallel experience with Marvel comics instead of Star Wars, the experience might well be flipped—though since the MCU is largely adaptations of, if often very free adaptations of, existing comics work, it would likely play out in rather different ways.

  3. My experience was with “conservative” sites, but you could see many of the same phenomena on the left then as well.