Game of Threads

I don’t play video games.

Yeah, right, who am I kidding?*

It has been quite the week since Milo published his article about the controversy raging in Medieval Studies—much of it swirling around me!

I have been typing my fingers off answering friend requests on Facebook, all the while trying to understand the ins and outs of Twitter. Even now, as I am trying to settle into writing this blogpost, I cannot stop checking my notifications. The dopamine hits (as they say) are addicting!

But what is it about social media that is so addicting?

Back at the beginning of time—around 2009, my first year as a blogger—I wrote a meditation on the wonders of Facebook, how lovely it was to find old friends and classmates with whom I had lost touch, and how such social networking works.

Back then, I had only about 100 Facebook Friends. As of today I have 1,076 Friends—some 125 added in just this past week! I also now have 729 Followers on my Facebook profile, 410 Followers on my Facebook page, and 748 Followers on Twitter.

It is very easy getting sucked into the threads. Sorry, I’ll be back in a minute...

There, that was satisfying.

For the moment.

I used to play video games, back when I was in high school. I didn’t play any in college that I remember. I had a fun time in the early 90s discovering how far things had come since Pong and Hunt the Wumpus when a friend introduced me to SpaceQuest. (Full disclosure: I married him.)

I spent a few years enjoying quest-style games, hunting for objects with which to solve puzzles. But then I played Phantasmagoria—and got totally freaked out when the axe sliced through the heroine’s head.

I haven’t played a video game since. Wait, there is a message I need to answer....

And another one....

And another....

New friends, old friends, new conversations, long running conversations. Brainstorming and planning. Learning about books I might like to read, contacts it would be good to cultivate.

It is heady stuff!

But it is not just the connections that are so absorbing.

It is the effort to answer so many different kinds of argument.

Like playing a room full of chess masters all at the same time, switching from one game to another, over and over during the course of a day.

Finding exactly the right riposte.

Without losing my temperance. Or attacking out of pride.

It is a constant temptation.

One misstep, and it is all over the internet. Ah, I need to answer this one now....

So many tensions are at play in every interaction. The possibility for misunderstanding in the absence of facial expressions and gestures, tone of voice and body language is immense. Emojis help—but only a bit. It is even harder when people use images other than their portraits as avatars.

To whom am I speaking when I type in this response? An old friend? A former student? Someone I know only through the internet? How will they take what I have said? Will they hear the joke? Catch the allusion? Understand the context?

I have been called names (“Nazi,” for example, and, of course, “white supremacist”). Accused of arguing in bad faith. Challenged on my professional credentials (“How do you even have a job?”) and my mental health (“You should see a doctor.”)

And these are only the accusations on which I am tagged.

How is it that social media is so vicious?

Just like Game of Thrones?

People often ask if Game of Thrones is “medieval.” I don’t know why. The evidence is all around them that it is not.

Just look at the Twitter threads of some of my colleagues in Medieval Studies. This one, for example.

Matt posted this tweet the Friday before the Tuesday when Milo’s article came out. Matt features in the article—and knew that he would. Milo had contacted him the previous Sunday for comment. Matt tweeted about that, too.

A friend sent me the screenshot from July 27th when I was at Mass last week. It was quite the shock to see the Night King, as it were, coming for me. (I live in Chicago, you may have heard.)

Except that he never did.

Today Matt posted something about not associating with people with whom you disagree—which at a guess makes me safe from further attentions.

But on the other hand, he has also tweeted that he is “always happy to talk to media about anything related to the Middle Ages, including how it’s being used in contemporary politics/culture”—which certainly could include me!

Note gesture.

No, I do not think Professor Gabriele intends any kind of actual violence against me.** This is a game played with words—and images—on the internet.

But psychologically as well as socially it is a deadly serious game. Matt wants me out. At a guess, he would prefer for me to stop talking altogether, but I think (judging from his tweets) that what he wants most is for people to stop talking to me.

Did I mention that I have 125 new Friends on Facebook as of this week?

Social media is a game of threads—some strong, some weak, some tangled, some singular. Over and over again this past week I have received invitation from strangers and friends of friends, some of whom had read Milo’s article, others who were interested in my work on the Bible and devotion to Mary, others who simply thought I looked pretty in my profile pic.

What I have learned from the conversations that I have had this past week is that people are hungry for knowledge, hungry for the kind of insight that scholars like myself are expected to provide—but haven’t.

Of course they thank me—they are asking to be my friend, after all.

But they also tell me their stories. Stories of being shut up, driven out of graduate school by professors and fellow students. Stories of wanting to study the Middle Ages and being told they were sexist or racist for doing so in the way that they wanted. Stories of longing and loss and missed opportunities for scholarship. Stories of being excluded for not wanting to toe the identity politics line.

No wonder there are so few of my colleagues in the academy willing to talk with me now. Everyone who might have been interested in talking with me as a fellow scholar has been driven out.

Look, there is another message....

Telling me yet another story of being excluded, this time from one of the Facebook groups ostensibly about creating connections within our field.

The tweets are alive with ridicule after Professor Peterson tweeted a link to Milo’s article.

It is hard to know where we go from here. Here we have tools of social interaction like no others available at any time in human history, and yet given the opportunity, we descend into poo-flinging like apes.***

At least in the Middle Ages, there were some standards of chivalry.

Now, all we have is Facebook threads and angry tweets.

No wonder it is so addictive.

Vice always is.

For my ongoing adventures in the academy as a conservative, go here.

Image credits: Chess playing Markgraf Otto IV von Brandenburg from the Manasse Codex (Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 13r); Prof. RFB responds to her critics: Barry Jacobs (yes, that Barry Jacobs!)

*I know, grammatically it should be whom. It just doesn’t trip off the tongue with whom.

**Although there was this tweet, which you may do with what you will.****

***Milo and I talked on his podcast about the ridiculousness of claiming that Medieval Studies has neglected the existence of people of color; he also wrote about it in the article—which these tweeters almost certainly did not read.

****One take.

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