“I will play. I will lose, ” Lucas Shelton says. He peers over the rim of his glasses at a Trivial Pursuit board. “But I will learn a lot.” It’s Thursday night, and Shelton sits with a raucous group from Chicagoist.com (“Simmer down, Chicagoists!” shouts the waitress). They gather in the candlelit back room of Sheffield’s for a Trivial Pursuit smack-down. It’s a Herculean match that snowballed online, culminating in the brave dismissal of their screen names and treasured anonymity. At long last, they are meeting face to face.
Chicagoist is an online community of bloggers impassioned by all things Chicago. The site has a fervent group of hardcore commenters, a “peanut gallery” beneath each article that trade jabs at one another in feisty, often-times divisive debate. They communicate every day and know one another’s ages, genders and political parties, but before last Thursday none of them had ever met.
The gathering was initiated by Patrick Brown (a.k.a. Plumbum82) in a blog about Scrabble tournaments. The commenters abandoned Scrabble speak in favor of Trivial Pursuit one-upmanship. “It was an intellectual pissing match. We needed to settle it in the field of battle,” says Brown, who later went on to win the game.
Rachael Spavone (a.k.a. Spav1), knew she would get a lot of shit if she didn’t show her face at Sheffield’s. “I comment obsessively. It’s ruined my workplace productivity.” Spavone often goes to war with other commenters. She gleefully trades barbs and posts controversial opinions to incite arguments. “Every blog I comment on gets thirty comments. That’s not by accident,” she smiles devilishly, “that’s by design.”
It’s a well-sung criticism of the web; hidden behind an anonymous mask, people are free to drop all pretense of civility. Smussy, a former Chicagoist writer who now comments regularly, believes the advent of online communities is a double-edged sword. “It’s made possible the meeting of minds from New York to Russia, but the level of discourse has lowered to the fifth-grade playground. We say things we would never say if we were face to face.”
However, Thursday’s rowdy Pursuit game may have rocked Chicagoist on its virtual axis. Spavone admits, much to Smussy’s delight, that it will be harder to insult people now that they’ve met.
Brown has an easy answer for Spavone. When asked what he’ll be doing on the site tomorrow, he replies, “Making fun of all the people who didn’t show.” (Laura Hawbaker)