Wrongness on the Internet

This goes out with love to some dear friends of mine. You know who you are.

There’s an xkcd cartoon so famous that many refer to it by its number, 386. It’s my favourite and one that is referred to frequently in the Larbfeld household.

“OMG!” I will yell, looking up from my computer.

“Is someone wrong on the internet?” Scott will say, making me feel a wee bit foolish, and deflating my outrage by at least 50%. Thank you, Randall Munroe.


Turns out that it’s not as famous as I thought it was. Recently I discovered that my sister, who makes a living in the visual effects industry, had never heard of it or xkcd. Now, there aren’t many geekier professions or industries than my sister’s. And yet she did not know xkcd. I did a wee survey. Many of my friends, who spend as much time online as I do, had never heard of it.

Which leads me to my point: Internet famous is not the same as world famous. The internet may be vast, but it still isn’t as vast as the real world. Much that feels big and important online, that the whole world is paying attention to is, in fact, unnoticed by anyone but you and your online friends and enemies.

When you are caught up in some drama or other that has broken out on a list (or loops as some people call them), newsgroup, twitter, comment thread it’s easy to forget that. Many of these conflagrations are about incredibly important matters like race, gender, inequality etc. etc. Some are not. But no matter how grave the matter, getting caught up in an online shitstorm, or worse, being at the centre of one, is hellish. It can eat days or weeks of your life, mess with your head, and get in the way of work.

It’s easy to lose your sense of proportion and forget that the vast majority of people have never heard of the storm that’s been encircling you. Not only do they not know about it, they’ve never heard of the site where it took place, or the game it was about, or the field it’s part of. You will have friends and colleagues in your field who have no idea it ever took place.

The interweebs are vast. That’s true. But they’re also tiny and fragmented.

When I was on tour, I met countless booksellers who had no idea there’d been any storm surrounding the cover of Liar. These were YA specialists who make a living buying and selling YA.

The vast majority of people who read YA do not know about the YA lit blog world. I did many school visits. Most of the students I talked to had no idea that some writers blog, let alone that there are active communities and blogs solely devoted to discussing YA. So they certainly weren’t reading any of those blogs. Some of the librarians and booksellers and teachers ditto.

When you’re caught up in an online conflagration is exactly the time to remember that it’s a speck of sand in the scale of things. Sure, it’s important to argue for what you believe is right and to do so for multiple audiences. But don’t do it at the expense of your work and your mental health. Don’t think that the survival of the universe depends on your doing so. Let yourself back away when you need to.

Because one of the wonderful things about the intermawebbys is that you can back away. You can turn it off. Something it’s a lot harder to do with conflict in the real world.1

Besides for many of us around the world it’s holiday time. Enjoy yourself out in the sunshine!2

This is me turning off the internets and starting the xmas cooking.

Hope you have a wonderful break from work. I know I will.

  1. To be clear, what happens online is real. But it’s a real that’s a lot easier to turn off than conflict at work or at home. []
  2. Or out in the snow and cold and misery if you are unfortunate enough to live in the wrong hemisphere. []


  1. Sam on #

    Hee, “Larbfeld”. Merry Xmas to you both!

  2. Q on #

    I love XKCD!

  3. Carrie Ryan on #

    Fantastic post and so true!

    Happy cooking and yay for time off!

  4. Maureen Johnson on #

    I never get mad at the internet so I don’t even know what this post is about.

  5. Laurie on #

    There… there are people on the interwebs who haven’t heard of XKCD?

  6. Brendan Podger on #

    To quote webcomics that pertain to your post:

    WeerGeek and
    UberSoft (You need to read the next day’s strip for proper understanding)

  7. Brendan Podger on #

    Ooops that second link should have been:


  8. Amber on #

    Ha! I have never heard of that but I like it.

    I may move to Australia someday. I am very tired of the cold.

    Overall, well said.

  9. Brynne on #

    When I went to college (slash university), I suddenly met a whole bunch of people who were, like me, into Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, xkcd, Dr Horrible, TVTropes, and the like. I was struck by how we’re from incredibly different places (one guy is from Oregon like me, but the other side of the state, which might as well be a foreign country – and the others are from places like Minnesota, New York, and California) but we all share this great big culture called the Internet.

    So while what you’re saying is certainly true, there’s also a certain unexpected universalism that comes from the internet. And what it means to be a “geek” is sort of defined by that.

  10. Jude on #

    My library is decorated with cartoons, including many from XKCD. As a librarian, my favorite (it makes me cringe every time I read it) is http://xkcd.com/280/

  11. Brynne on #

    Also, I just have to be a smart alec and point out that Randall Munroe prefers that “xkcd” not be at all capitalised. 🙂

  12. Justine on #

    Brynne: What Randall Munroe wants Randall Munroe gets. Fixed.

  13. Doselle Young on #

    I am hugging your brain from afar, Justine. It is nice and squishy and full of yummy neuronal goodness. Now, if anyone on the internet would like to argue with me about this…

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