Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The F Plus

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Vital stats:
Format: poor and/or freakish writing found on the internet, then read aloud
Episode duration: ~1h, plus the occasional special short
Frequency: weekly, in theory

The internet offers more of a chance than we’ve ever had to engage with the written word and with others who share our interests. As much fruit as this development has borne, The F Plus [iTunes] [RSS] reminds us that we’re dealing with, at best, a double-edged sword. Young “digital natives” aside, most internet users never prepared themselves for a life where they’d need to write anything at all, much less their everyday communication about the things most important to them. And who among us has adequately shielded himself against the universal human temptation to settle into a set of opinions and then retreat into an unthreatening — indeed, reinforcing — echo chamber? At the intersection of these two avenues of misfortune, this podcast taps into a considerable vein of comedy: almost 120 episodes’ worth, at this point, with no signs of resource depletion.

I don’t know whether anyone has written it as a rule of the internet, but for every interest, no matter how fringe, a forum must surely exist. Indeed, the fringier the interest, and so the deeper into the margins of society its practitioners must dwell, the more likely a forum somewhere supports it. The F Plus troupe — whom, for all my listening, still often sound to me like a barely differentiated gaggle of comedic-white-guy voices — scour these fora for the most bizarre, inept, or otherwise laughable posts, then read them out loud in funny voices. Some take pains to faithfully pronounce standard tics and errors — “LOL” becomes “lawl,” an apostrophe-less “I’m” becomes “im” — but that merely pours into the show’s abundant stream of cheap laughs. The deeper, more troubling humor, the kind that gives you as much of a pause as it does a chuckle, comes partially rooted in good old they-walk-among-us fear.

“You have just entered the very heart, soul, and life force of the internet,” reads Urban Dictionary’s top definition by far of the anonymous forum 4chan, to which I have added capital letters. “This is a place beyond sanity, wild and untamed.” And who dwells there? “You depend on us every day. We bag your groceries, we fix your computers. [ … ] We are 4channers. The people devoid of any time of soul or conscience, products of cynicism and apathy, spreading those very sentiments daily.” But this insistent nihilism, just slightly too aggressively dead-eyed to credit, bothers me less than do the punishing waves of ungrammatical self-righteousness this podcast rides. They wash in from all directions: from discussions of childrearing to body modification to something called “fat acceptance” to the relative merits of Stargate and Star Wars. And all those episodes came out recently; if I dug deeper, I’m sure I’d hear from, say, those guys who dress up as Gadget from Rescue Rangers. I understand they see themselves as persecuted, as do every group whose indignation earns the show’s mockery. “I worry that being indignant has almost replaced sex as the main pleasure of a section of the community,” once said novelist Ian McEwan. And you can’t spell “indignant,” after all, without “ig’nant.”

For all The F Plus’ entertainment value — high, by the way — I’m not at all sure I want to dig much deeper. This material discomfits, and not necessarily because of the fear it raises of encountering a frenulum-piercer or an omorashi fetishist or an unschooler in a dark alley. In their seedy anonymity, their self-perpetuating detachment from reality, their crude excess of every base emotion, and especially their sheer incompetence, these posts say things about humanity that we’d probably rather not hear — or, failing that, laugh hard enough to muffle. Encountering this sort of text in the wild, I find I can never actually envision a living, breathing human being typing it in the first place. I instinctively imagine, or simply hope, that I’m reading the work of a monster, or at least one of those hunched, greasy specters who squat on the public library’s computers. Still, nobody’s ever going to make me actually venture into these dampest corners of the internet, though each episode’s show notes provide the links to all the source material, should you dare cast your eyes upon it.

I myself swore off fora of almost all stripes — with, of course, a notable exception here and there — when I realized that internet arguments have, over and above the convictions you bring to them, an all-consuming power of their own. (I also realized that I have no convictions.) Anyone who’s laughed at that xkcd cartoon about someone being wrong on the internet knows what I mean, and understands the futility and waste inherent in that hapless stickman’s position. The F Plus ridicules these go-nowhere arguments and delusional agreement festivals alike. Rightly so, since they strike me as two sides of the same badly debased coin. Then again, if a fifteen-year-old in Wauganaukee can now, with the aid of the internet, find out that he is not, in fact, the only homosexual in the whole world, we’ve made a worthwhile trade-off. Trying to draw a meaningful line to wall that benefit off from that from the lively, completely incoherent discussions going on even now at OverflowingBra.com may, alas, prove a fool’s errand.

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[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes] and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He's working on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]