Helen Popkin
By
msnbc.com
updated 10/4/2007 9:56:16 AM ET 2007-10-04T13:56:16

Okay Internets. Let’s get clear on one thing. It is never, ever cool to publicly cheer for somebody’s suicide. It doesn’t matter if you hate prefabricated pop music. It’s immaterial if bad hair weaves or the possible neglect of a couple of Hollywood babies offends your every sensibility. It’s irrelevant if you believe that the integrity of the MTV Video Music Awards is forever compromised or that driving without a legal California licenses is a capital offense. Gleefully calling for someone’s — anyone’s — imminent demise by her own deliberate hand is just not okay.

Some participants in the conversation seem to get that. Shockingly, a whole heck of a lot of you do not. In fact, it’s often the first place you go in the chat rooms and message boards when expressing your disapproval of this or that — and never more definitively than when it comes to the China Syndrome that is Britney Spears. For that, the death wishers pop up in droves. Seriously. What up with that?

Internet Britney Haters reached critical mass the first day of October when celebrity gossip site TMZ broke the shocking-yet-unsurprising news that ding dang it! Britney done lost her kids. In celebration, every available blog comment field from TMZ to PerezHilton.com is now a virtual Mardi Gras, with masked posters reveling in what they see as, at last, the killing blow before Britney paints the ceiling ala Kurt Cobain.

Gossip blog comments run the gamut. “While her life may parallel Natalie Wood's life I suspect she'll die like River Phoenix or John Belushi. No big loss with their deaths; neither will hers,” says one introspective Dlisted.com poster. “OMG, It's gonna be so awesome when she kills herself. Then we'll have to listen to a year of ‘who's fault is it?’ I hope she opts for a shotgun to the face instead of pills or something lame,” says an imaginative TMZ reader. Meanwhile, one unfathomably angry gossip enthusiast on PerezHilton.com shouts, “BRITNEY IS A FAT STUPID UGLY HEARTLESS IDIOT! I HOPE SHE DIES AND SOMEONE WEARS HER SKIN AROUND THEIR NECK!”

Yeah yeah, it’s cold and cruel in cyberspace, and if-you-can’t-take-the-trolls-log-off–the-server-and-why-is-MSNBC’s-tech-section-running-another-Britney-Spears-story-by-this-nincompoop-I-guess-I’ll-have-to-find-me-one-of-them-news-sites-that-doesn’t-cover-this-particular-topic (good luck, pal) blah blah blah  … Shut up. Netiquette is about Internet culture, and you best believe that the strikingly ugly way netizens choose to discuss celebrity or interact with one another is just as relevant as college campus text message alerts , predators and cyberbullies and a possible cultural divide between MySpace and Facebook.

Britney Spears deserves no more or less compassion than any other biped. Nor should we condemn those who enjoy following and/or make their money covering celebrity minutiae. Yeah yeah, of course I’d say that, being one of them and all. Still, there’s truth in the time-honored cliché that here in the United States, celebrities are our royalty and that gossip is not inherently evil, but often a necessary binding agent for a cohesive society. But dang, people! This off-the-chart online anger and cruelty is a whole other Dear Abby.

Why? Because Britney Spears discussions aren’t the only place single-minded trolls cheerfully call for the self-administered deaths of people they’ll never meet IRL. It happens even in the mildest of chat rooms. It was a frequent comment on Chris Crocker’s YouTube channel even before he posted his infamous “LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE!” video . Of course, as a flamboyantly gay boy growing up in a small Southern town, Chris can tell you that bashing homosexuals remains a time-honored pastime in this country — even off the Internet.

Again and again and again: This isn’t about “Oh poor Britney, leave her alone you monsters!” Frankly, we all need to start thinking about why it’s acceptable to spew viscous black bile in cyberspace, when the majority of us wouldn’t do it face-to-face. Let’s break it down for those slow on the uptake and/or raised in a barn. Hanging on the Internet, it’s easy to pretend you’re not in the real world, and “Lord of the Flies” rules apply.

But guess what? As actual and virtual reality increasingly intersect, what you do online, to varying degrees, equals public behavior. If you can meet the love of your life on a dating Web site or lose your job for some innocuous comment or photo you’ve posted on MySpace — and people do all the time — what you do online is part of who you really, truly are.

When applied correctly, it’s perfectly okay to utilize black humor to deal with stuff that’s impossible to deal with. Some time in April 1994, you might’ve been heartbroken, but said to your pals anyway, “Ha ha, if I was married to Courtney Love, I’d kill myself too!” But you wouldn’t shout that same sentiment at a Hole concert, lest you risk Courtney flying across the audience and cold cocking you upside the head — which happened — and say what you want about the Widow Cobain — deservedly so. There’s just some crap you don’t say in public — and that includes the Internet.

A forum accompanying the recent Chris Crocker Netiquette interview asked “Is the Internet too mean?” There were many thoughtful answers, including one respondent who offered this humorous algebraic equation: (Normal person) x (Anonymity) = JERK. And sure, the innominate ability to stomp the hobgoblin of foolish consistency might be one reason a “normal person” strikes out with verbal violence. Then again, if you’ve got this much anger, guaranteed your “normal” goes only skin deep. If that’s the case, stop obsessing on a pop star you claim to hate, and have a nice long look into your own abyss .

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