[2 May 2011]
For centuries, the great humourists have realised that the richest mine of material is to be found in the petty and mundane of human existence… so it should not come as a surprise to discover that one of the most promising comedy resources of modern times is cyberspace. The flipside of which is, of course, that while many more people now have the resources to set up as online satirists, comparatively few know how to wield the form properly, or for that matter care enough to try. The same chance at an audience that encourages foolish self-importance in some tends to inspire the exact same those that set out to expose them.
In The Internet is a Playground David Thorne, who got his start as an Internet sensation mostly via trolling Net forums whenever he got bored with his actual career in graphic design, stakes his claim for real-world credibility simply by refusing to take either side very seriously at all. He’s not trying to be hip or follow the hype; he’s not trying to make any larger point at all, really. He’s just, well, bored. Or at best irritated.
Since said forums tend to frown on people using them as their own personal catharsis (as for instance posing as an elderly lady for awhile on a knitting forum, then posting ‘Hmmm, what’s that noise downstairs?’ just before leaving for good – Thorne is currently based out of his own website, 27b/6. From there he has built a sizeable following based on his further interactions—usually via email—with the petty, obtuse and small-minded folk who roam the cyber-wastelands, Mad Max-style. (Coincidentally, Thorne is also Australian. We are not quite sure what this all means, but we have an idea it would be worth applying for a lucrative grant to study.)
His modus operandi is simply to take whatever logic is presented him with and run with it, except as filtered through a mind roughly 25x sharper… and 150x given to nonsensical tangents -– often weirdly bear-related—when bored. Thus, if a chiropractor is going to send him a bill, in effect assigning a monetary value to useless treatments, Thorne’s logical response will be to attempt to pay it by solemnly assigning a similar value to a random drawing of a spider. (Except perhaps inasmuch as the spider only has seven legs.) If a co-worker who knows he dislikes cats asks him to create a Missing poster for hers as a favour, she should not be surprised if she receives in return… well, ‘Missing Missy’ is easily the best piece in the book, so I’m not going to spoil it here.
Not all of the pieces are responses to online irritants. There are oh-so-sweetly sarcastic ‘tutorials’ on camping from his friend Simon’s point of view, tennis as taught by his hyper-competitive girlfriend, awkward moments courtesy his young ‘offspring’, and… well, pretty much everything… as screwed up by his boss Thomas (up to and including Thorne’s resignation letter as incorporated into Thomas’ request for a last-minute speech). By the end of the book I was wondering if public safety didn’t require a perpetual sign around Thorne’s neck: WARNING: DO NOT BORE THIS MAN. YOU WON’T LIKE HIM WHEN HE’S BORED.
Seriously, yes, any attempt to run the real world like this would break down more or less immediately. And the wholly self-indulgent POV has other pitfalls; it’s not altogether a comfortable experience to read satire when you find yourself sometimes wondering if his targets really deserve it that badly.
The thing is, though… it’s all just so damn funny. As in, ‘Can’t read on the bus lest people in white coats come for the hysterically giggling maniac’ funny. Never mind his publisher’s too-hip-for-it-all posturing, Thorne has a serious gift for writing, let alone writing humour. The intelligent complexity of his seemingly random nonsense is actually kinda breathtaking in spots. Picture a sort of John Cleese meets James Thurber taking on a Dilbert-esque world.
It’s all the more hilarious because no matter how deliberately nonsensical Thorne becomes, his email chains can go on for pages. The more well-meaning and/or reasonable the correspondent, the richer the satire, as their unwittingly valiant struggles to assume good faith provide a perfect counterpoint (“That is not even a picture of a bear, that is clearly a dog with a blanket over it…”) In a way it’s kind of heartwarming to realise just how much faith the average petty official has in their fellow man.
Now, whether all of this is strictly legitimate is open to at least reasonable doubt; please note, again, that Thorne is a graphic designer by trade. According to publicity articles, he admits that at least one of his correspondents – the police officer who demands he remove an article from his site as it refers positively to selling drugs – is a ‘composite’ based on similar, but presumably less officious, letters. One could wish the pieces were more clearly labelled in this respect, as it makes a material difference to how they’re received.
(The spider thing, however, is apparently 100 percent real. And – just going by my own online-BS meter here, but it’s fairly highly developed, especially after that stint in the ESPN.com NFL chatrooms – I’d be willing to vouch for most of the rest of it, too.)
Thorne is ultimately walking a dangerous tightrope here between playful irreverence and disrespect for his audience; at some point, when you’re trying to get people to take your writing seriously enough to spend money on your efforts, you do have to start caring about something other than your own entertainment. I hate to be the pedantic type yammering on about how the class clown isn’t living up to potential, but there is that nagging sense through many of the pieces that Thorne’s targets are too obvious, that he’s coasting when he could be seriously challenging himself and the reader. In particular, going after bloggers—never mind emo teens—is kinda akin to hunting sparrows with a bazooka.
It remains to be seen how much Thorne cares about any of this. If he responds as I think he’s capable of doing, though, I’d be more than happy to spend money on the results for a long time to come.