The Internet is destroying our
generation’s capacity for confrontation. Once upon a time, we
were tough — we held our own in dodgeball and full-contact
foursquare — but no more. We have spent too many years in
electronic worlds where there are no immediate consequences for the
things we say and do, and it has turned us into a bunch of
solipsistic, passive-aggressive brats.

Laura Wong

E-mail is a good example. You would scarcely believe some of the
terrible, terrible things people have said to me about my writing,
my intelligence, my character, my motivations, my soul —
assessments all based entirely on the columns I’ve written
for the Daily — via this beast. Things that would have
horrified their mothers and that I know they wouldn’t have
said if they thought they might meet me someday. E-mail turns the
cowardly arrogant and the arrogant shrill, and it saves all of them
from having to own up to what they’ve said.

Another example: There was a big article in The New York Times
Sunday Magazine this week about computer-virus writers and how most
of them never actually send their viruses to anyone. Apparently
there’s a huge online community of virus writers, and they
post the source codes to their data-devouring, server-crashing
concoctions in public webspace where any idiot can (and does) copy
and circulate them. The virus writers shrug off any damage their
viruses do, saying that, well, it isn’t their fault some
idiot turned the viruses loose.

It’s a handy excuse, and more and more young people are
co-opting it. It’s not a girl’s fault if, for instance,
a guy cheats on his girlfriend (twice) with her and this girl
writes about it in her LiveJournal and a friend of a friend of a
friend of the girlfriend’s reads it, and by the end of the
day, the girlfriend shows up at the guy’s house with a
printed copy of the entry and stuffs it down his cheating throat.

Venues that make passive-aggressive hijinks so easy and so much
fun are bound to lull us into some nasty habits, and unfortunately
those habits may creep into our flesh-and-blood lives if
we’re not careful.

Like this: My roommate and I live in a basement apartment, and,
though we have never met the people who live directly above us, we
hate them. Hate. They are loud, and not in a lovable music-blaring,
hard-partying sort of way. No, if the racket we endure is any
indication, the people upstairs awake every morning promptly at
5:00 a.m., at which point they pound the floor (a.k.a. my bedroom
ceiling) with sledgehammers for several minutes. And roughly every
45 minutes after that for the rest of the day, they drop pots and
pans and bricks and marbles and canned goods and medicine balls and
small appliances on the floor, just to make sure no one is catching
a quick nap down here.

It drives us crazy, but we never complain. Maybe one of us
knocked on the ceiling once.

Now, the indoor stairwell leading down to our apartment is
extremely dark. There are two light “fixtures” (a term
I use very loosely here) — one at the top of the stairs, in
front of our neighbors’ door, and one at the bottom, in front
of ours. We recently changed our bulb, but when we got home the
other day, it was out and the other one was working for the first
time in weeks. We could have shrugged and concluded that maybe
light bulbs didn’t last quite as long as we’d thought.
We could have knocked on the door at the top of the stairs and said
Excuse us, but yesterday your light wasn’t working and ours
was and today your light is working and ours isn’t, and we
were just wondering whether it was a very well timed coincidence or
a case of you stealing our light bulb and thinking we
wouldn’t notice.

But no. We are 21st century college students. We had a plan. We
would switch the light bulbs back late at night while the
lead-footed indoor-hopscotch players upstairs were sleeping
soundly, dreaming of loud, heavy things. And we were going to leave
a copy of today’s Daily — open to this page, on which
there would be a column exposing them as the loud, despicable
thieving hooligans that they are — in plain view on the
stairs. Brilliant, I know. We almost did it, too, but just as we
were about to exchange the worthless old bulb from the bottom of
the stairs for the shiny new one at the top of the stairs, we
realized that the worthless one was too big to fit in the upper
fixture, meaning it couldn’t possibly have been there in the
first place. Oops.

It’s a sheepish feeling I’m glad for, one I wholly
deserve, and one I hope doesn’t vanish entirely from the
public conscience as dodgeball is banned and journals go live.

Henretty can be reached at

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