(I really should just leave the post as is because, dude, that’s a title that speaks for itself. But if Mrs. F can get paid for cranking out reams of bullshit, then I can do that and more for free. Because I love you.)
We’ve had a subscription to The Atlantic Magazine for a while, and its monthly arrival is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, we get the excellent long form journalism of James Fallows and Mark Bowden, articles that discuss the big wide world and all the weirdness within. And on the other, we get a bucketful of stupid from Mark Steyn, Christopher Hitchens, and Caitlin Flanagan. The first two I can usually ignore, but Mrs. Flanagan’s writing is, to me, the literary equivalent of a chemical plant fire: breathtaking in its power and beauty, yet full of noxious fumes that make me dumber the longer I stand and watch.
Mrs. Flanagan (and I’ve seen her insist on being called this, and who am I not to grant a woman’s wishes for her desired salutation?) has, apparently, discovered the Internet and found that (shock and dismay!) it’s filled with kids spilling their guts and pervs waiting to make chitterlings from said guts. I’m not sure it’s news to readers of the Atlantic, ’cause, here in the middle of 2007, it’s been common knowledge since, oh, 1997. Even earlier, if you want to go back to CompuServe, BBS and Usenet. Rather than explain, with some journalistic detail, why MySpace, Facebook, LiveJournal, Blogger, TypePad and every other Web 2.0 tool make the sharing of information easier and weirder than previously (like this Reuters article that Ken passed around), Mrs. Flanagan rolls around in the horror, like a dog who’s just found an extra stinky pile of garbage.
To her credit, she calls out NBC’s To Catch A Predator for the sensational crapfest that it is and that the morons who get caught by Chris Hansen’s Camera O’ Justice are guys who “couldn’t find the salad bar in a Wal-Mart” (or words to that effect. Either way, this made me laugh, which is part of the Caitlin Flanagan Drives Adam Bugfuck Theorem, which states that the better the prose and the dumber the content, the more bugfuck I will be driven).
However, she misses an ugly fact that Anne brings up any time someone wrings their hands about Strangers Taking Our Children: the vast majority of kidnapping and child abuse is committed not by strangers, but people that the kids know, like their own parents. Your kid is more likely to be snatched by his estranged dad than that guy in the smegma-encrusted jeans sitting at the bus stop. And there’s also the fact that any real child predator won’t be so guileless as to drop into a honey trap like Hansen’s. If anything, it’s helping these fuckers evolve. The mouth-breathers chasing fourteen-year-old ankle are going to get snapped up, branded as sex criminals and sent into exile in the middle of Oklahoma, while the ones with a bit of smarts will see the trap and learn how to hunt for better, easier targets.
But that section of the essay had little to do with the Bugfuck Quotient. No, it’s her crack investigations into Club Penguin and MySpace that illustrate The Problem With Caitlin: either the woman doesn’t have an ironic bone in her body, or her sense of irony is so far advanced that we mere mortals can’t grasp it. Whichever it is, it makes for shitty journalism, because part of a cultural critic’s job is to point out the incongruities in that culture. If Mrs. Flanagan can’t be honest enough to point out the incongruities in her own life (like the fact that she keeps calling herself an average, stay-at-home mom despite that fact that she’s about as average as I am the Pope: her husband is a VP at Mattel, she has a household staff, and she spends her day writing and reviewing books instead of, y’know, parenting), how in hell can she do so with 21st century America?
She can’t, which is why she can become a cyber-stalker without any self-awareness that’s she’s become one. When her twin boys start exclaiming about the joys of Club Penguin, she does what any smart parent would do: she sits down with them while they go about their penguiny business. (Of course, that she didn’t sit down with them and monitor their Internet intake in the first place before the penguin shenanigans began just adds to the Bugfuck Quotient, but you can’t expect her to be a critic and pay attention to her kids, right? Besides, isn’t that the nanny’s job?) But then, after watching her boys’ penguin avatars romp and IM, she pulls the plug because there’s no telling who might be piloting the other flightless waterfowl. Are they other kids from around the country chatting about cartoons and toys? Or are they Internet Perverts out to steal her children’s innocence and anal virginity?
Mrs. Flanagan then proceeds to show how Club Penguin’s safeguards (in-world monitors and community policing to ensure that kids don’t share personal information that could link back to their real life locations, or that someone doesn’t run around asking about Bad Touching) are worthless by getting her own account. She logs in, plays penguin games, and makes penguin pals, and does all of this without realizing that this is the same fucking thing that a real child predator would do: act normally, make friends, and gain the trust of one’s potential targets. That she doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with the idea of getting an account is bad; that she carries it out is what I’ve come to expect from Caitlin Flanagan: a stupid idea executed incredibly well.
Mrs. Flanagan steps up her path to stalkerhood by going onto MySpace (an act that I still don’t recommend for anyone. Not because it’s the lair of perverts and pedophiles, but because it’s filled with idiots) and typing in the name of a nearby exclusive girls’ school (my guess? The Archer School). And there she finds out something that still shocks people even though the phenomenon is at least twenty years old: people share information about their private lives! They talk about their friends! They show pictures (okay, that part’s probably only been around for ten years or so)! They complain about classes and discuss how awesome their boyfriends are and how great the beach is and where they like to shop and, and, and…
And she reads this, and it freaks her out that she’s so absorbed by it all. Welcome to the personal web, Mrs. Flanagan. It’s been around for a while (though, to be fair [and why must I insist on being fair?], my quick search for “blog” on the Atlantic’s site found that the magazine, as late as 2004, was still using quotation marks around blog as if they had to put on protective gear to let such a word soil their pages. It could be that the Atlantic’s editorial staff had just had their heads up their asses since the mid-90′s, but I think this is a syndrome suffered by most media monoliths and something to take up another time), and it’s not going anywhere. And, yes, there are basics about going online that everyone should know, including the idea that ‘net culture and technology are fluid and change and that you should be able to adapt because, dude, it sure as hell isn’t going to adapt for you.
But then Mrs. Flanagan latches onto a girl (whom she calls Jenna), reads her comments and looks at her photos and pulls up her schedule at school (and, note to whoever set this school’s IT policy: you are idiots and should be sacked. Remember that bit about parents doing most of the kidnapping? Let’s picture what would happen if little Jenna’s estranged mother decides, fuck the restraining order and custody hearings, I’m going to find out when my little darling has class so I can visit. With a bagful of vipers. Jebus) and gets some half-baked idea to trespass and…what? Not even Mrs. Flanagan knows, but it doesn’t matter, because she has become a Creepy Stalker.
I think she’s also illustrated why people go online in the first place: it’s because they’re lonely and their lives suck. Yes, Mrs. Flanagan has her plum writing gig, a wealthy husband and two kids. Does she have any friends? Adventures? Excitement? You’d think so, seeing how she’s got all of the accouterments, but it sure doesn’t come out in her writing. My impression of her is that she’s hellaciously smart and wants more out of life, but can’t get it without admitting that she’s a huge hypocrite. So, she hops onto MySpace, follows Jenna’s path and lives vicariously through her, just like the rest of us do with personal sites.
And there’s nothing creepy about that. We’re a storytelling species, and what’s a story but an opportunity to slip into someone else’s skin for a while? I think that’s perfectly healthy, just so long as one recognizes the limits. Reading about Jenna is fine; wanting to be Jenna is not. And waltzing onto a supposedly secure campus, camera in purse, target in mind, is so very stupid and wrong that some parent ought to knock on Mrs. Flanagan’s door and read her the riot act. And I’m pretty sure it will happen, assuming Mrs. Flanagan travels in the same wealthy circles as Jenna’s family.
The Atlantic has already gotten aboard the cluetrain by giving James Fallows and Matthew Yglesias blogs and by excising the stupid in giving Mark Steyn the boot. I can only hope that Caitlin Flanagan is next to go, and soon, before my Bugfuck Quotient passes capacity.