What we’re facing here is the death of fun, a ban on giggling alone at your desk.
The Stop Online Piracy Act asserts itself so broadly—it aims to regulate everything from counterfeit prescription drugs to intellectual property rights—that it’s difficult to begin to imagine all the ramifications. The only thing I know for sure about SOPA is that it would be a very bad thing for people who frequently use the internet—so, everyone—and that it would sit its big, weighty body on the fragile skeleton of free expression and crush it into a million little splinters. It would inspire fear in everyone who creates content online, even if they’re only doing it for their own Facebook friends, because most of us are ignorantly pirating or consuming pirated best-of clips of Groundskeeper Willie, making the sites we use most liable. YouTube, Twitter, Wikipedia, Google, Wikileaks: What we’re facing here is the death of fun, the end of profound, drool-inducing engrossment in 50 pages of someone’s sporadically-chronicled life, a ban on giggling alone at your desk.
It can hit at any time—checking your email at 10:30 on a Saturday morning or killing 20 minutes before dinner—but it strikes most frequently at night. You open a new tab and wind up here again, a cup of some delicious liquid on the arm of your chair, and think, This is what watching Saturday morning cartoons was like. Mashup videos smell like occupying your own childhood again: that good old brain-churning, zap-eyed wonder at colorful stimuli. David Thorne was right: The internet is a playground, and being entertained by it is an experience that’s difficult to imagine living without.
Falling deep into the hole of the internet is such a specific sensation that it’s like entering a physical space, Willy Wonka’s library of garbage and treasures for kids of all ages. When you find something that sticks with you, it may be because you remember how toxically, deliriously infected you were with entertainment fever on the night you found it, a blinking cursor hovering over a blank term paper several windows back. You may use it as a starting point for a maze of clicked links leading down increasingly obscure topical pathways, through network television graveyards and Japanese music videos, to something strange and beautiful that rips someone off in the pursuit of creating something much weirder. It is a peculiar delight to laugh hard all by yourself, especially when you’re laughing at something too bizarre for mainstream commercial release that was presented to you for free.
Tumblr, the mp3-posting and meme-dispersing wizard that it is, wouldn’t weather SOPA very well, either. There would go my favorite source of confessional overshares and Thorn Birds-style epic personal storytelling, right down the drain. Finding a good personal blog, usually on sites like Wordpress and Tumblr that enable file-sharing, incites another modern reaction, similar to the laptop-laugh-alones but slightly different. It makes you feel guiltily invasive, as though you’ve been invited to stand in a person’s darkened bedroom after they’ve gone to sleep. It’s almost like entering another dimension, perhaps as close as we’ll get to feeling what it would be like to be another person. There was a time when I was two years deep into a fundamentalist homesteader’s blog and felt, each time I finally ceded to the low battery alert and shut myself down for the night, as though I’d just watched a really fantastic movie. Her life—presented in the form of quilt photos, recipes, creaky-sounding folk music mp3s—was far more engrossing at the time than anything that could have been manipulated into actual, marketable entertainment. Its plot unfolded slowly, as though building tension to some kind of crisis point that never came, a well-timed tragedy for the blog equivalent of sweeps, the death of one of her cows, maybe.
That’s another way the internet can be so much fun to watch: Nothing really happens. It’s just cats. Or other people’s mistakes. Or webisodes that suddenly stop being funny as soon as you persistently coerce any of your friends into watching them (always, like magic). On the rare occasion when something noteworthy occurs, a natural disaster or a Blue Ivy Carter, the internet is even more stimulating than usual. It isn’t always fun that we take away from watching things unfold on the as-yet-uncensored, un-policed internet, but something like fun: exhilaration and wonderment at experiencing an event universally, of watching and listening and reviewing a narrative so open-ended and incubated from the Hollywood process that only the fear of IP persecution could make it die. The internet may be the only place where humans communicate fearlessly: a dangerous and wild imagined space, with all sorts of beasts to gawk at.
The internet must fulfill some kind of karmic balance, a treat we’ve been given for the hardships we’ve endured—the dramatic weather patterns and H1N1 virus. Suddenly, we have access to such a vast array of stuff, and so many tangents and interpretations of that stuff, that our experience of being human has changed. We leave fingerprints on what we find, the videos and images and words, and stuff them into our caches so we can find them more quickly if we need them. Why? Because we care more than we’d like to admit about whatever happens in our brains when we stare into the screen, and SOPA has forced us to consider narrowing our spectacularly wide-screen perspectives of what the internet can offer. Nobody wants the government bugging the colorful, offensive, intimate conversation we have with each other in public: We’d all feel like Toad in his bathing suit, utterly ridiculous and hopelessly vulnerable for watching the subtitled eight-part Survivor finale in Spanish on YouTube.
I think it’s likely that we’ll eventually have a more regulated internet—that some law will pass that will slap bars on the cages and force us to mind our manners a little bit more, to pay to consume things crafted by experts and focus groups to entertain us all. But I will miss what we have now, the way we train our eyes on a constantly-refreshed screen and chase the ‘net giggles made just for us: images, millions of images, that’s what we eat.
Screenshot from YouTube's "To Catch a Predator Parody," with love.