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|| News Item: Posted 2003-12-31

Shooting from the Hip
The message board is a party

By Scott Sommerdorf

When the Internet was new, it quickly became obvious that one of its major benefits was going to be the ease and speed with which we could talk with each other. E-mail, instant messaging and chat rooms in "Cyberspace" made it possible for a person in New York to talk with a person in Mongolia as easily as going next door to talk to a neighbor.

This concept is old hat to us now. In fact it is so taken for granted, that I feel pressure to cut short my ramblings about how this is the most revolutionary thing to happen to society since the telephone, and get to my real point.

I want to talk about something that's been on my mind lately and I think is worth some deeper thought.

The message board is a party.

The hosts of this party are Grover, Brad, Jason, Bert and all of the people responsible for bringing to life.

In your mind's eye, try to imagine as a real life party. The kind where you get an invitation in the mail, drive to a friend's home, and are greeted warmly at the door.

- The party is at their house.

- You have been invited in, and they are glad to accept you into their home.

- You don't want to plug their toilet, step on their cat, or track mud on their carpet.

- You appreciate the invitation, and want to be invited back.

- You bought them a small gift in order to get in.

- They put a lot of work into making it pleasant, and they want you to feel comfortable there.

The hosts introduce you to some new people. You walk around and are greeted warmly by old friends and are drawn into conversations with them and some new people you haven't met before.

You don't know these new people. But what you do know is that they are all here because they are either friends of others here, or are like-minded people who share your interests.

You really enjoy these parties your hosts put on because you are always meeting new, interesting people that have varied life experiences. They tend to be thoughtful, smart people who notice what is going on around them. You enjoy listening to them talk about what they notice and care about, and you find that you learn from them. Once in a while you join in when you know what you have to say is appropriate and adds to the value of the discussion.

Mostly you've learned that it doesn't work to just say the first thing that pops into your head. You've made mistakes in the past by speaking quickly and regretting what you've said later. Either because it was rude, or just flat wrong. Over time, you developed a theory about how to handle yourself at these parties. It boils down to measuring what you are about to say by these rules:

I don't say anything if:
- It's mean-spirited.
- It's self-serving or ego-centrist.
- I'm not 100% certain that the advice I'm about to give is accurate.
- I realize I'm just chiming in to hear myself talk.

You realize in this moment why you keep coming back to these parties: It's because you really appreciate these strangers who are becoming your friends, and the access you have to all their life experiences. You are blown away by the fact that even though they just met you, they are very open to teaching you tricks of the trade, and sharing knowledge that in other circles is closely guarded and rarely shared.

In this thought you understand that this is something very special. You very much appreciate being invited in, and you decide it needs to be supported and protected.

In looking around you see it's a really big room - this place that the crew has invited you into. Gradually you become aware that it's not ANOTHER party, but that this party is always going on! You just dive in from time to time.

You start to notice some new things - stuff you haven't seen before, but since you are feeling more protective now, you pay attention. Off over in that corner there are some friends of yours talking. You've seen them before and remember having a great time with them. So you start to walk over to join in the discussion.

But wait, before you can add the thought you had in mind, some guy jumps in and interrupts with something about Krispy Kreme doughnuts and the amount of cameras he owns.


It's sad - you can't believe the audacity he has to use this party to talk about himself.

Like a loud belch in the middle of a symphony, this behavior is thoughtless and just inappropriate. But the guy is so oblivious of the value of what he is ruining. After a while your friends give up and leave the party.

You move on also, because you don't want to be associated with this guy who is so clueless that he would ruin this rare event just because he needs some attention. In talking to others, you learn that it's not just one guy, but a handful of people who also like to break in with inappropriate things to say.

You are starting to notice that some of the favorite, most well respected guests don't come to the party as often as they used to. You realize that to get them back - to get them to feel comfortable, you have to try to convince the party-goers that have not acted so kindly, that they need to show respect for the hosts and how they behave while in their home.

Some of the other guests have talked to these people, and suggested that it's fine to jump in and be humorous once in a while, but there are limits to being goofy here. Going too far with that attitude ultimately is disrespectful to the hosts. You suggest that to a few of them, and they don't take kindly to being singled out. They become indignant and suggest that in America you have the right to say anything you want.

Sure - this party is in America, and yes speech is free in that country. But more to the point - the house that the party is in belongs to your hosts. You are still a guest in their home. It is a private home.

So you realize that you have to adapt yourself to their rules. If they want you to remove your shoes at the door, you do it. That's why they've posted some simple rules at the door to the discussion room. They hope you read them and not forget them during the midst of a passionate discussion.

In your heart, you know this is not the place to talk about religion or politics, because that just results in dividing people, not bringing them together.

There is a theme to this party after all - and you've worn your Hawaiian shirt to reflect that. It's about on-topic fun, sharing the passion and love we all have for our craft, and being able to learn from each other in an adult environment. But above all, it's respect. Respect for each other, and respect for our hosts.

Despite the few disrespectful people you bumped into, you leave the party knowing you'll be back as fast as you can. And you'll hope those people you really enjoy talking to are still at the party when you return.

(Scott Sommerdorf is a staff photographer with the San Francisco Chronicle.)

Related Links:
Scott Sommerdorf's member page

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