Then And Now: A Social Retrospective For Dummies

There was this guy, Adam Orth, who was a creative director at Microsoft, and who stirred up a lot of ire by mincing no words when discussing people’s irritation at the Xbox One being “always on, always connected”. As the Internet is wont to do, people took it personally, and worked quickly to make Orth’s life a living hell (according to him).

I could really care less if some random internet dude tells me to “deal with it” in hash tag form. Yes, I pictured this guy as Any Guy, saying this out loud with a “meh” expression and a shrug of the shoulders like a total douchebag, but let’s face it: my opinion is always going to be valid as far as I’m concerned, and that this one guy who’s on the other side of the country, whom I have never met, thinks otherwise makes absolutely no difference in my life. That’s not an attempt to convince myself when my feelings are hurt; I had totally forgotten this guy about 10 minutes after I had originally heard about him.

But his re-surfacing got me thinking, as old people do, about Days Gone By (in this case, pre-Internet). I lived during that time, so this isn’t some half-assed co-opt of an “up hill, both ways” story. Back then, our socializing was limited to only those within arms reach, either through school, clubs, sports, religious institutions, family, or neighbors. The World was a map, or what we heard on TV news or read in the newspapers. Most people (in the U.S., and especially where I grew up) didn’t know anyone on the other side of the world; it might as well have been the 1300’s, before people were really sailing all over the place and meeting new people. The most international I ever got was when my cousins hosted an exchange student from Spain.

Back in those days, you had two choices when dealing with other people. You could totally bullshit people by acting and behaving in a manner that represented who you wanted to be, or you could act like yourself. Usually people chose the first option if they thought their real selves wouldn’t be accepted. But that could really drain your batteries that way, because you had to be “on” 24/7. Remember, your interactions were spatially limited, so if you dropped your guard and someone found out that you were a racist and not a choir-boy, for example, news got around fast. Your entire reputation went from “clean cut” to “bigoted liar” in only a few hours. And you couldn’t get away unless you moved.

Here in modern times, people take for granted the fact that on the Internet, nationality or location in the world is almost meaningless. You can interact with people anywhere, any time, and I think we’ve quickly become immune to the “gee whiz” of it all, especially those who grow up in this environment and know no different.

But as the Orth Parable teaches us, we no longer have the option to choose between throwing up a facade or being ourselves. The freedom that the Internet provides for our benefit is the same freedom that allows people to gang up on one another, to find and publish someone’s home address, the names of family members, the location of children’s schools, a person’s religious and political affiliations, and all kinds of information that isn’t horrible by itself, but in the wrong (and determined) hands, could ignite some Really Bad Shit.

Orth chose to show his true self. He spoke his mind, based on his beliefs that the things people were upset about weren’t worth getting upset about, and that people weren’t seeing the forest for the trees, and were overreacting because of it. But he shot from the hip, and without the benefit of body language or vocal inflection, his comments came off as condescending and arrogant. He wasn’t talking to anyone specifically; he was addressing a nebulous “They”, which included anyone who felt that his comments were addressed directly at them. The Internet being what it is took this slight and stretched it, magnified it, blew it out of proportion, and passed it around until people did what anonymous people will do: they made it as personal for Orth as they felt he had made it for them.

Orth was an idiot. For any intelligent person spending 10 minutes or less on the Internet, it’s pretty obvious that if you’re going to be yourself, you had better be ready for the repercussions. Know this: there are people who are ready for that battle. The rest of us should know that if want to really enjoy our time on the Internet, we have to be who we want to be, not who we are.

Let’s face it: everyone does and says stupid things, and everyone had opinions that other people would find unappealing. There’s no denying that. Back When, if you said something stupid, it would only be stupid if the people in your immediate area thought it was stupid. In the Internet Age, you can say even the most innocuous thing, but it’ll have a world-wide reach in a matter of seconds, and it’ll linger for weeks, months, or years. Someone, somewhere, will find what you said and will call you and idiot for having said it. So we have two options: stay off the Internet, or present a deliberate and cultivated persona designed to provide a little ambiguity as possible regarding your intent, your stance, and your future interaction with people.

Orth had a job to do, and he blew it. He chose to be himself when he should have been Xbox One’s Creative Director. I could write another screed about the disdain that corporations have for consumers as a way to explain how Orth actually was speaking as a Creative Director, but I think this was a case of one man acting alone. His follow-up interview shows that he’s no less clueless about how the Internet works now than he was when he was working for Microsoft. He doesn’t seem to understand that he was just as much to blame by not realizing what kind of a potential shit-storm his off-handed remarks could start. He continues to be dismissive of the people he should have once worked very, very hard to court, even after this debacle caused him apparent hardship. Had he been a model Creative Director, he would have worked hard — probably to no avail — to sell people on the status quo, not tell them to basically fuck off and suck it up. 

That someone who is allowed to speak in public on behalf of another (or a company or brand) can be so clueless about how to comport oneself on the Internet is mind-blowing to me. This kind of behavior would have gone totally unchallenged 25 years ago, but the reality of it is that we can’t just assume that people know us, understand us, or that our words won’t have repercussions somewhere in the world, and then feign indignation when the backlash hits us.