Lemonade Inc.: Hype, Trust, Transparency, Mutuality

I’ve been excited by the advent of #Lemonade Inc. since I first heard about it early last year. If you’ve had any experience in the insurance biz over the past few years, when insurtech became a thing — or over the last several decades as you’ve watched life insurance in particular become less and less of a standard financial backstop (at the least) and more and more of an endangered financial species — how could you not be excited by a peer-to-peer (P2) insurer with an essential reliance on Artificial Intelligence (AI) — not to mention a boatload of new VC investment? If you follow developments in the insurance biz to any serious degree, you had to be excited by Lemonade (if not perhaps equally optimistic about its disruptive success).

But that’s exactly been my problem with Lemonade. From the rumors first circulating about it to its first official press release, we’ve been victim to an unending cascade of breathless:

 HYPE.jpg
And it’s wearying; it just wears you down after just the first dozen or so articles, blog posts, excited conference talks, social media musings, etc. Some of this, of course, is just your standard hype of anything new, even about the insurance biz, about which, frankly, who gives a damn  except insiders (and that’s more likely to be us pundits than the insurance execs able to actually do anything about it — like, understand it and intelligently assess its true innovativeness and capacity for serious disruption)? Most of it, I believe, however stems from insurance folk with deep-seated inferiority complexes who’ve been captivated by all the greater and more bombastic hype thrown up in the Banking Industry: Hey, bankers and fintech guys, we’ve got some pretty interesting insurtech stuff over here — we’re catching up to you, maybe, you know?

Warning: BIG DIGRESSION here on banking vs. insurance and fintech vs. insuretech. By all means, skip way down if you wish to avoid this. If not… then let me state flat-out: The trope that, in respect to Technological and Digital Transformation, “Banking is years ahead of its overly conservative and cautious and blinkered (or head-in-a-dark-place) Insurance brethren,” well, that’s BS. While it’s repeated endlessly on the insurance side and just arrogantly assumed and not usually worthy of comment on the banking side (beating a dead horse?), it just ain’t true. Yes, the hype in re: banking disruption and innovation is greater, louder, more persistent, and greatly more self-assured than anything you see and hear in the Insurance biz — but it’s still hype and it’s still BS.

Take a look at “These are the top trends that will define the insurance industry in 2017,” a fine and fully representative example of year-on prognostication of “top trends” and “what you need to know” in re: the insurance biz from Business Insider. Since not all these prognostications are directly relevant to my BS accusation, I’ll spare you the entirety, but there are several points that are quite relevant and those I list below.

2. Midsize and larger insurers are making massive investments to transform their businesses into digital service providers. This transformative process is impacting not only legacy systems, but also decisions about which firms—including insurtech vendors—they invest in, partner with, or purchase.

4. Highly skilled advisors that help clients through uncertain times with complex solutions will become more difficult to find and retain…. They are looking for advisors able to consistently execute on being a trusted advisor to client senior management teams while also selling the full product solution set.  

5. Artificial Intelligence (AI) will evolve from a buzzword to a critical capability that helps drive better outcomes for clients (e.g., advice tailored to their specific and complex needs), increases efficiency for insurers, and solves for talent shortfalls in insurer advisory skills…. While low-value clients may receive digital self-service AI advisory interfaces, higher-value clients will still be relationship managed. 

6. Blockchain is moving from prophetic transformational hype 18-24 months ago to a medium-term reality. 

8. To compete against specialist providers, insurers will purchase, license or develop their own smart analytics to suggest appropriate solutions, leverage known data to prepopulate/streamline applications/new product set-ups, and wrap it all together with easy-to-use integrated dashboard analytics.

9. The balance of power will shift, with insurtechs aggressively seeking out insurance partners the same way insurers were aggressively courting insurtechs not long ago. 

11. End users will benefit from the ability to aggregate data across multiple providers. Insurers , meanwhile, face the risk that a insurtech or other provider will become the front-end interface, relegating the insurance providers to commodity processors or utilities.

Now, hold on: Am i saying that any of this isn’t accurate or true of insurers —  that consensus does not exist within the industry that these trends are real and happening? No, not at all: Actually, quite the contrary. All of this is indeed happening in the insurance biz. But here I must admit I’ve played a little trick on you, Dear Reader: The Business Insider article copiously cited from above is actually entitled “These are the top trends that will define the banking industry in 2017.” It never mentions insurers or insurtech at all. I just changed out the words banks for insurance companies/insurers and fintech for insurtech and, what do get but the exact same stuff written every day about the insurance biz?

It would seem, if my little trick holds water, that banking, per Business Intelligence, has been and is currently grappling with many of the same issues and challenges as insurance, experiencing many of the the same “disruptive” trends, and dealing with much of the same kind of VC-financed tech vendors and “solutions” as is insurance. In sum, the banking industry is apparently no further along in dealing with any/all of this than is the insurance industry. Apparently future banking imperatives are largely identical in nature (if not perhaps in scale) to those of the insurance industry, and banking is no further along in realizing them. Meaning no disrespect to the banking industry; no, my point is simply that insurance folk should take a more realistic perspective on their industry’s challenges and the progress being realized.

And, to add a digression within this digression — which, I promise, will be relevant to the discussion of Lemonade — we should also note the article’s obligatory and blithe assurance that banking is evolving “into more of a tech industry”  — without of course ever explaining how even massive investment in technology makes banking more of a tech industry than, uh, banking. Same of course needs to be explained (because it is also assumed on the insurance side) how even a massive investment in technology will make insurance into more of a tech industry than, uh, what it is and what it does, namely insurance. Banking remains banking no matter how much money you spend on fintech, and insurance remains insurance no matter how much you spend on insurtech.

Okay, now I’ve gotten this off my chest, let’s get back to why you started reading this post in the first place: Lemonade. Here’s how the company has been described in a recent piece on P2P start-ups:

Lemonade is a property and casualty insurance company that offers a fast, affordable and hassle-free insurance experience. Launching gradually in the US during 2017, the company is a licensed insurance carrier, offering homeowners and renters insurance powered by artificial intelligence and behavioral economics. By replacing brokers and bureaucracy with bots and machine learning, Lemonade promises zero paperwork and instant everything.

There is also a good write-up,  “How artificial intelligence could help make the insurance industry trustworthy,” from The Guardian. Notice they did not write “more trustworthy,” the assumption being that the insurance industry simply isn’t trustworthy at all. Sad to say, Lemonade indulges in that rhetoric as well. More on that below.

Clearly the new venture qualifies as insurtech: You could call it AI insurtech and you wouldn’t be wrong, what with its bots and machine learning and undoubtedly other sophisticated technology (instant everything). But you wouldn’t be adequately understanding it, either, if you failed to note its essence as P2P. That, I think, is what really distinguishes Lemonade from a host of other insurtech ventures and investments, and solidifies its status as an insurance company and not (just) a tech company or insurtech. 

If, as I believe, Lemonade is a P2P insurer with AI and Chat bot etc. technology, rather than an AI tech company with a P2P model, what’s the big deal? Well, consider that the description I quoted above came from an article about 31 P2P start-ups. For all the incessant buzz about insurtech, which is certainly real and not at all to be discounted — it’s still the “with” part of P2P with AI — I think it’s the P2P model that really captures the insurance entrepreneurial zeitgeist.

Marshall McLuhan famously said that we march backward into the future. He was not extending a compliment to the human race in saying so, but rather bemoaning the fact that we continually and erroneously interpret the new, which genuinely puzzles us, in terms of the old, with which we are already comfortable. I admit I may well be guilty of that here. Or perhaps I might be onto something in noting that just as often we fail to understand the significance of the new because of our forgetfulness of the old. Maybe we sometimes fail to understand the new precisely because we have forgotten what it may harken back and give new life to. If that’s possible, I’d like to claim that what is really radically “new” about Lemonade (and many other P2P insurance ventures) is not AI nor assorted other nifty technologies but something very old in insurance, and either forgotten or seriously misunderstood, namely Mutuality, the very basis and historical lifeblood of property and casualty and life insurance in the United States.

“The mutual/casualty insurance industry began in the United States in 1752 when Benjamin Franklin established the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses From Loss by Fire,” according to the article on Mutual Insurance in Wikipedia. Today, discussions of mutuality in insurance almost always reduce it to one thing that it is not, i.e., it is a form of “private” ownership and corporate structure that is not that of public, stockholder insurance companies. While this distinction is true enough in its own way, it is, however, only trivially true of Mutuality. In fact, this type of financial distinction between mutual insurance companies such as State Farm or New York Life, and public stock companies such as MetLife or GEICO is, fatefully, trivial. Consider a more original, more expansive, more (shall we say) exciting understanding of mutuality offered in an article by Maddock Douglas:

When you consider the use of the word “mutual” in the context of insurance, its origins are less about the corporate form (i.e., mutual versus stock company) and more about the nature of how risk is shared among many people. That’s what makes insurance work. It’s about the idea of mutual interests, mutual things in common and mutual agreement that protecting something is more efficiently done with groups of people versus alone.

You would be hard pressed to find this understanding of mutuality offered today by the mutual insurance companies. Nope, no mutual interests, mutual things in common and mutual agreement — nothing about how risk is shared: Rather, the mutuals’ mutuality is all about what we are not: We are not public companies, we are not Wall Street, no, no, we’re, let’s call it Main Street. In fact, at the advent of the Great Recession in 2008, New York Life, to its chagrin, tried to hang its hat on the slogan We’re Main Street, not Wall Street — I say to its chagrin because the company slogan was immediately and roundly greeted with derisive hoots and, in no short time, the threat of a suit from Main Street regional banks!

I would like to suggest that what’s really exciting about Lemonade is this new old understanding of mutuality: how it doesn’t just underwrite but shares risk with its customers, how it has things in common and mutual agreement with its customers. Consider this statement from Lemonade’s chief underwriting officer, John Peters, in the third of the new company’s Transparency Chronicles:

We have the good fortune of having a strong, rapidly growing base of customers who trust us, and whom we trust too. Together, we are building a company for the long haul, and the early metrics make me feel like we are on the right path.

I’ll summarize those metrics shortly but I’d be remiss not to note the importance of the periodic Transparency Chronicles themselves, three issued within the first 100 days of the company’s operation: Name me a mutual or stock insurance company willing to try anything beyond the issuance of their standard and usually obfuscating Annual Report.

Metrics: For now, Lemonade sells renters insurance — what my good friend and industry expert Terry Golesworthy of CRG once called the start-up “crack cocaine” drug of the insurance industry — and also homeowners policies. Active Policy Count from 263 in  its first month of operation (September 2016, New York State only) to 2,223 in January 2017; “The majority of customers insured with Lemonade are actually new to insurance. They had never found an insurance company that they liked, trusted or interacted with, the way they wanted.”; 53% of premium dollars are from renter’s insurance and 47% are from homeowners’ policies; “We celebrate claims when they come in. We’ve had a few (six in 2016, to be precise) – exactly the number we expected based on industry statistics. What is different is that our claims have all been small – way smaller than industry averages.”; 25% of people who solicit a price, buy — “high by any standard and actually increasing”; the quality of risks runs from 42%, excellent; 38% very good; 10% average; 10% below average.

This is really very early days, as Lemonade itself points out, but, hype aside, it seems quite promising. (And please note that having secured approval for these products from the New York State regulators, the company has filed for licensing in 46 states and the District of Columbia: Lemonade Aims to Offer Insurance for 97 Percent of Americans in 2017.) Moreover, as I noted above, just revealing this info is promising from the transparency and trust points of view. So the AI part of the business would in fact seem to be performing well, and should in fact be continually improving. (See Lemonade Reports Insurance Claim Paid in 3 Seconds with No Paperwork, a “world record” already over-hyped.)  As for getting customers new to insurance (the established industry’s holy grail), it seems the P2P structure, it mutuality philosophy, is understood and paying off as well. Here’s a good description from the Guardian article quoted previously:

To demonstrate transparency… the insurance startup publicizes how it divvies up the premiums in running its service. Lemonade makes money by keeping a flat fee of 20% of a customer’s premium. It sets aside 40% mainly for buying reinsurance from firms such as Lloyd’s of London to cover major claims that exceed what the premiums can cover. The remaining 40% will cover claims, with whatever is left going to a charity of the customer’s choice at the end of the year. The company, which is registered as a public benefit corporation, includes the charity component to show it’s not just about making profits.

The charity component also helps to minimize fraudulent claims, said Lemonade CEO and co-founder Daniel Schreiber. “When they have a common cause that they’re raising money for, the thinking is that if they make a fraudulent claim, they aren’t hurting the insurance company but rather the charity or organization they have chosen to give back unclaimed money to,” Schreiber said, adding customers could feel extra guilty if they are raising money to benefit their communities, such as a school library or soccer field.

So, let me stop at that. By all means read the three Transparency Chronicles on the Lemonade Blog. Read Insurance as a Social Good there, as well. Yes, it’s very early days for Lemonade, very early days for P2P insurers (and insurtech). But old times also, at least in Lemonade’s reinvigorated understanding of Mutuality and, just quite possibly, too, the tiniest beginning of a new blossoming of trust and transparency in the insurance industry — should the established players in the industry choose to learn from all this.

Posted in Disruption, Innovation, Insurance, Life Insurance, Marketing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

New York Life and Slave Insurance

So… I was lunching with a friend the other other day when he asked me — knowing I had spent some 25 of my life working at New York Life Insurance Company — what I thought of the recent front page Times article about the company having established itself as a slave insurance company. Well, I was certainly disturbed by his bizarre question, with its not-so-subtle hint of schadenfreude. I’m a pretty religious reader of The New York Times and I hadn’t seen any such article, front page no less; couldn’t imagine why the Times would be digging up this old history (not the history itself, which is clear enough, but presenting it as “news” today); nor how you make the leap from the sale of some 500 slave life insurance contracts by the Nautilus Mutual Insurance Company, New York Life’s forbear, to New York Life as a company established through slave insurance. (Not to mention how the guy once in charge of what we called the News Prevention Department could not have managed to quash such a piece.)

Well, my friend was right about one thing: The Times had indeed published, on its front page, an article about New York Life and slave insurance. Here it is: Insurance Policies on Slaves: New York Life’s Complicated Past. How I missed that on December 18, 2016 is beyond me. What is also quite beyond me is why this should have been published as “news,” let alone front page news. I’m usually pretty good at figuring out any agenda behind Times articles but I remain, to this moment, stumped on this one. The “news” about New York Life slave policies was broken to the wider public in 2002 when the then-CEO formed a partnership with Rainbow/PUSH Coalition One Thousand Churches Connected to provide student scholarships, financial services education at local churches, and an educational Web site supporting both. (I was the businessperson in charge of Internet endeavors at that time, so my guys created the site. I was also intimately involved with the finserv curriculum, which we created in partnership with what we’ll call “a major New York City-based bank.”)

The slave policies were indeed news in 2002, though it had always been known within the company and would have been discoverable by anyone outside it who did a modicum of research. (Google “history of new york life.”) In fact, the reason why this became news in 2002 was that in 2001 New York Life donated to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture its archive of slave policies issued by Nautilus, along with a substantial donation — I no longer remember exactly how much but, yeah, it was “substantial” — to set up a scholarship program dedicated to studying the history of slave owners buying insurance policies on slaves. (Uh, it’s not like it was only Nautilus that did this; see also Harvard, Georgetown University, JPMorgan Chase, Well Fargo, Aetna, US Life — all dutifully mentioned in the Times article. “More than 40 other firms, mostly based in the South, sold such policies, too.”)

This was, in other words, news that was quite deliberately revealed by New York Life. Did the general public or the great majority of New York Life policyowners in 2002 know anything about what the Times in 2016 chose to call its “complicated past”? No, certainly not, or at least we must honestly presume they did not. But nothing about that past had been hidden or denied and the company itself chose in 2001 to make it an issue. After this, New York Life funded two PBS series, one on Jim Crow and another on Slavery and the Making of America, along with supporting Web sites (both of which still exist on PBS.com). Are we talking about “transparency” here? If so, I don’t know how the company could have been more transparent. New York Life effectively created the transparency about its slave policies. Or are we talking about reparations? Well, I don’t presume to be the expert on that, but I think everything mentioned above (and much more accomplished by the company in subsequent years) would count toward reparation, although I must leave it to others to determine what adequate reparation would be).

Consequently, in 2016, there were no secrets here, no “news,” really, at all, unless your definition of news is news recycled from 2002. Time to shine a fresh light on old news? Apparently the Times thought so. So let’s see if we can puzzle out why. (Hint: I think it’s that it’s become so obvious lately that we are not living in a post-racial society.)

[I]n the span of about three years [1845 to 1847], it [Nautilus] sold 508 policies, more than Aetna and US Life combined, according to available records.

Its foray into the slave insurance business did not prove to be lucrative: The company ended up paying out nearly as much in death claims — about $232,000 in today’s dollars — as it received in annual payments.

So while Nautilus did indeed sell these policies, it’s obvious that it quickly recognized both the business and moral hazards of doing so. The Times author specifically notes that James De Peyster Ogden, New York Life’s first president, described the American system of slavery as “evil.” Writes Lawrence F. Abbot in a history of New York Life commissioned by the company and published in 1930:

During 1845 the Company wrote on an average of forty policies a month. The number written in February, 1846, suddenly jumped to one hundred nineteen. This was due to the discovery by some over-shrewd agents in the Southern states that policies might be profitably written on the lives of slaves — profitably, that is, to the agents….

The Company soon discovered that the acceptance of slave risks was indeed a risky business and in April 1848, after an unsatisfactory experience of only three years, the issue of policies on the lives of slaves was discontinued by the specific order of the Board of Trustees….

The abandonment of slave policies by the New York Life was partly a measure of self-protection but also partly a rudimentary recognition that life insurance is essentially altruistic and is to be conducted under a code of ethics as exacting as the Hippocratic oath of the medical profession.

Despite this, the Times author proceeds to try to build a case — or rather to insinuate a case, since she also provides much mitigating evidence (see below) — that these money-losing policies were crucial to the establishment of New York Life as a successful insurer:

The company had two years to invest or spend much of the revenues from the slave policies before death claims exceeded annual premium payments…. The policies helped New York Life establish an early foothold in the South.

True enough, but is this sufficient to prove that New York Life could not have survived or prospered without them? Well, we have an answer above: Early in 1848, Nautilus repudiated any future sale of such policies — not the policies already sold, claims from which of course had to be paid out in good faith, although doing so could only damage the company’s finances. Virtually concurrent with this repudiation came the “re-branding” of the company from Nautilus to New York Life.

Now, it would be terribly disingenuous to claim that while Nautilus sold slave insurance, New York Life did not — and to my knowledge no one at New York Life has ever made such a (nonetheless technically accurate) claim. I think, however, that it is equally if not even more egregiously disingenuous to ignore the historical facts that the company known as Nautilus, which had sold slave insurance, both repudiated that practice and concurrently re-branded itself under a new name, New York Life.

The best that our Times author could do here is, as I said, insinuate the most damning case: Two years of premiums and an early foothold in the South. She herself, however, conscientiously notes, per company execs, that “slave policies generated only about 5 percent of total revenues during the three fiscal years in which the policies were sold… and did not drive the company’s growth.” Actually, it’s difficult to see how 5 percent of total revenues could ever drive almost any company’s growth: That would be kind of like saying, for example, that the five to maybe 10 percent of Alphabet that is not Google search advertising revenue, has somehow driven the company’s growth. I think if you add this to the historical facts that Nautilus repudiated selling slave insurance and simultaneously re-branded itself as a new company, you pretty much close the books, so to speak, on the damning case.

This said, I do not, could not, would not wish to make light of the company’s history. It is what it is, and it’s nothing to be proud of and nothing deniable. Consider that first president, De Peyster Ogden. Himself “a cotton merchant who grew up in a home tended by slaves, [he] would become a prominent defender of slavery, describing it as an unfortunate, but inextricable part of the nation’s economy.” And yet he also called slavery “evil” and reversed his new company’s practice of selling policies to slave owners. Is that a “complicated past”? You bet it is; it is America’s complicated past. It’s also, unfortunately, America’s complicated non-post-racial present.

I’m not proud of New York Life’s “complicated past,” but I am proud of how decisively the young company dealt with it at the time and how it has continued to deal with it in the ensuing years. (New York Life will celebrate its 172-year anniversary in April 2017.) Not by denial, but by its opposite, transparency. Not by obfuscation, or trying to sweep it under the rug, but by what can only be described as its good works: Indeed, by all means read the Times piece, not simply for its sorrowing personalization of New York Life and its slave insurance history, but also and not least for its brief summary of New York Life’s “efforts to provide philanthropic support to the black community.” And I’ll give the last word here to the company’s PR spokesman, in spite of the fact that he’s a PR spokesman:

While we cannot change our history, our longstanding recognition of it has helped shape our commitment to the African-American community.

 

Note: The quotes from Abbott are from his The Story of New York Life, published by the company in 1930. As Abbott notes, his account is deeply indebted to that of an earlier company historian, James M. Hudnut, who published his Semi-Centennial History of the New York  Life Insurance Company 1845-1895, in 1895. I am sad to say that The Company You Keep: 150 Years with New York Life, a volume produced for the company’s 150th Anniversary and of which I was one of several proofreaders (but for typos, not historical accuracy), completely avoids the subject of New York Life’s slave insurance policies.

Posted in Insurance, Life Insurance, Politics | 5 Comments

My Week at the Psych Ward

Recently a close friend of mine asked me to write up his week long “experience” at Mount Sinai’s Clark 8 — a cryptic name, right? not at all descriptive — but what most of us would call a psych ward, or perhaps the loony bin. After a couple of talks, I tried to do so as best and faithfully as I could, but, it really didn’t satisfy either one of us. What he most wanted to convey was his feelings about the whole experience, not something that read like a neophyte reporter’s “sociological” account, which, I must admit, is how it first came out.

Psych Ward.jpg

So we made a somewhat weird and counter-intuitive decision: I would write it up in the first person, still (largely) in his own words but as he painstakingly recounted it to me without himself having to put pen to paper. So there is no “he” here — it’s all “me” and “I.” My friend has read this new version and is completely happy with it, although I’m not sure that I am, having heard the whole harrowing (and really pretty funny?) story straight from the horse’s mouth. Consider this, then, a kind of slightly edited — but not embellished — Studs Terkel-type interview, minus the interviewer. OK? (Ed.: Admittedly I added a few editorial asides, in bold italics, which he’s approved, too. It helps, I think, if you know that my friend considers himself a “public intellectual without a public,” as he often says.)

Clark 8, or Welcome to the Hotel California

How I ended up at Clark 8 — what I did to end up there — I don’t think important enough or even relevant to specify. After all, there’re lots of different ways to land in the loony bin, as I’ve now learned. I will only say that I never meant to hurt anyone but myself: Not much of an excuse, I see that now in retrospect, but then you always hurt the ones you love, the ones you shouldn’t hurt at all (courtesy Fats Domino). This is not meant in any way to escape responsibility for my actions.

I know what I did to get there, but couldn’t tell you a thing about getting there. I just woke up the next morning in a hospital bed, drugged up and mostly drugged out. “How do you feel, Mr. Jones?” (Ed.: An unashamedly pedestrian pseudonym.) “Damned if I know, except not so good.” (At least that’s what I intended to say but even I could tell it didn’t come out quite right.) It never occurred to me to ask where I was, and if I had and they had told me “Clark 8” it wouldn’t have meant anything to me, anyway. But I knew this was no ordinary hospital. I’ve been in hospitals several times for different operations and ailments and this was clearly not an ordinary hospital.

I was mostly comatose the whole of that day and, by the evening, when I had regained some clarity, at least enough to talk a bit, my roommate — since he once called himself an Average Joe, let’s call him that — told me i was in the Psych Ward: “Welcome to the Psych Ward!” I asked him what day it was — “Saturday,” he said, “you picked a bad day to get here.” “How come? What’s wrong with Saturday?” “‘Cause, my friend, there are no doctors here on the weekend, you can’t get out without seeing one and you won’t be able to see one until Monday, if you’re lucky then, and no way you’d be be getting out of here on Monday, anyway, ’cause they have to diagnose and then observe you, see how you respond to the treatment. You’ll be on God knows what kind of meds all weekend so you might as well roll over and go back to sleep. The RNs will wake you up every once in a while, take your blood pressure and give you more pills. So just relax and we can talk more tomorrow.”

Average Joe was right, of course, and so there’s no point trying to tell this story day-by-day, since all days in Clark 8, except the aforementioned weekend, when you can’t see a doctor, are exactly the same. The only inevitable and somewhat predictable events are breakfast, lunch, dinner, Visiting hours, and Movie Night (which is every night), and everything else here is either erratic or completely unpredictable (even to the authorities, the docs, RNs, assistants!) So you have this weird combination of a little certainty with massive unpredictability. My first day in Clark 8 was about as uneventful as could be: Pills and blood pressure, just as Joe said. Sunday was only a bit different — I still mostly drifted in and out of sleep but in lucid moments I learned a lot from Joe, particularly that since I had not voluntarily admitted myself — that is to say, that I had been involuntarily committed — I had no say whatsoever about getting out. (To be fair, I had been in no condition to voluntarily admit myself.) “Nobody gets out of here until the doctors and Social Workers say so. Maybe you’ll see them tomorrow [Monday] maybe not, all depends on their workload, I guess. I’ve been here a few days now and I haven’t seen anybody. I have no freaking idea why I’m here. I hope you do.”

By the end of the week, Joe and I were calling the place Hotel California (Ed.: courtesy of the Eagles): “We are all just prisoners here of our own device…. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

So, yeah, I mostly slept, and so did Joe, for that matter, because he was getting sedatives, too. In fact, I assumed he slept more than I did, since most every time I woke up, he was asleep, an easy to make but elementary-stupid deduction. Turned out, as his meds got changed, he had a really difficult time sleeping. One morning I got up to pee and wash off as best as I could: We resorted to a larger version of baby wipes, because we had no shower curtain and, effectively, no shower, just three tiny nozzles spitting out jets of ice cold water. Anyway, that morning I noticed that three of four things opposite our “shower” that were completely inexplicable to us, (some relic of past Psych Ward torture, perhaps) and toilet, little round chrome pieces on the wall that reminded me only of the perfectly round, smallish breasts with aureole and nipple that you sometimes see in Cincquecento Italian paintings. I left them there on the floor and Joe told me later that day that he had awoken sometime in the middle of the night — BTW, there are only a couple of wall clocks at Clark 8 and you’re not allowed a watch of any kind, so you never know on your own what time it is — and had unscrewed them from the wall but would screw them back on later if he could. Pretty fucking crazy, I thought then, but as the days went on I realized, no, not crazy at all: What the fuck else do you have to do in Clark 8 in the miserable middle of the night when you can’t sleep? Why not see if you can disassemble these weird little things that are just stuck there in the wall?

Clark 8 is laid out like a plus sign and it’s not particularly large, so walking for exercise or just to kill time is both weird and ineffective: How many times can you walk down a hallway, turn around, go back, turn right or left, turn around, go back, repeat, repeat, repeat?  There are windows at the end of each hallway but they’re either frosted so you can’t see out or, if they’re clear, just look directly into some other side of the hospital where there’s nothing to see but more frosted windows (or clear windows and, believe me, nothing to see in them, either). At one end of the plus sign is the Day Room, which (of course!) is locked most of the day, except when there are classes underway — more on classes later — or later in the evening for Movie Night (which, again, is every night, although there are only three movies, a Harry Potter, a Star Wars, and some straight-to-cable [and perversely ultra-violent!] crap starring a bunch of B actors). There’s also an Activity Room in which there are no activities of any kind except a television tuned to channel seven (Ed.: the ABC station in New York City). If you ask a nurse or admin to change the channel for something, anything else, the invariable and unanswerable reply is: Well, you’d need to have a remote to do that, wouldn’t you? It’s actually just a spillover room from the Dining Room that’s also kept locked except during and immediately after meals, LIVE with Kelly in the morning and ABC News after dinner. (I never wandered in there after lunch, so I don’t know what plays then.) There’s a Nurses’ Station or Administration Office where you can go to try to shot the shit with anyone on duty who’ll put up with you for a few minutes, or perhaps to ask when you’re getting your next meds, the answer to which is, usually, Soon, don’t worry, we’ll find you. 

Sooner or Later…

For all the reasons mentioned above, time moves verrrrrrry slooowwwwwwly in the loony bin. One morning after I had finished breakfast — it was probably just a couple minutes after 9 then — I sat on my bed and tried to read the Times — I was a lucky one whose wife brought me the paper every day, although by the time I got it and could read it, it was already yesterday’s news. (BTW, the only newspaper available to Psych Ward patients was the Metro, a free and worth-every-penny of it rag you pick up in the subway.) And another BTW, you aren’t allowed any electronic devices, so no phone, no laptop, no Kindle. You’re allowed small paperbacks if your visitors are willing to bring you some, but no hardback books, presumably so you don’t attack a fellow patient with one or try to commit suicide by banging one against your head. I was thinking of asking my wife to bring me a nice fat paperback of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire just to see if they’d let me keep it.

Reading anything is difficult here, however: You might be awake but you’re still affected by all the meds — I mean everyone is on some kind of sedative or antidepressant or other kind of drug that, let’s say, slows you down, so it’s a slog to get through even a couple of articles or pages. Plus, one of the screamers is always nearby outside your door — not that a screamer has to be nearby, anyway, in Clark 8 — and the screaming obviously starts to drive you crazy. (I’ll talk more about the screamers later.) And the nurses made clear, by always opening closed doors, that they should never be completely closed: The doors have mirrors on them where you’d expect glass, so that the nurses, etc. can check in on you with the door half open, where it’s supposed to be.

Anyway, that was exactly my situation one morning; I was plodding word-by-word through an article, the screamer was driving me nuts, I couldn’t concentrate, so I got up and walked around, and around, and around… The screamer finally shut himself off for the moment, and I came back to my room, read a few more articles, dozed off for a while, woke up, forced myself through a couple more articles of the Times, and thought, Good, must be real close to lunch by now, which could be anytime after noon; and not that I wanted the food, I just wanted the time to go by. So I walked down to the Nurses’ Station, where there was a wall clock: It was 9:45. I had just killed 45 minutes in what felt like three hours. This never really changed much, even after I got to know quite a few of my fellow inmates, uh, patients, and could manage conversation. (The majority of patients were incapable of communication, either because they refused to, were too drugged out to even try, or wanted to talk but couldn’t manage coherence.)

Most all of us wish to have more time, wish we could somehow buy time — wouldn’t you buy time if you could? Well, you can get a lot of it for free at a Psych Ward, way, way more than you could ever figure out what to do with. The Psych Ward is the epitome of nothing to do, and all the time in the world to do it. You can’t really say the problem is boredom: Boredom is way too wimpy a word to describe “spending” time in a psych ward; despair is more like it. And if you think that’s hyperbole that’s only because you don’t really “spend” your time there at all; you just endure it; you can’t give it away; you beg for something or someone to take it away from you, and nobody or nothing does.
I was supposed to have one doctor assigned to me, but because, I guess, of they themselves being pulled here and there by circumstances beyond their control, I actually had visits from three different docs (four visits in total, none lasting more than a few minutes and none in private, despite the posted Rights of Patients; same with Average Joe: I was present in our room during all or certainly most of his doctor visits. Neither of us had a modicum of privacy). I had learned early on, or just intuitively grasped, that you don’t seriously question your doctor during his rare and inevitably brief visit (or the nurses, either, for that matter): He asks the questions; your job is simply to answer and to do so in your best positive, upbeat, optimistic way — that’s  Rule #5. (Yep, there are Rules and we’ll get to the rest shortly). But during one visit, while, gee, what a surprise, one of the screamers was out in the hallway doing his thing, I did dare to question why there wasn’t some way to either better treat these people or at least, let’s just say, segregate them from those of us who don’t ROUTINELY GO STARK RAVING SCREAMING MAD IN THE HALLWAY FOR HOURS AT A TIME. Doc replies: I can’t really discuss treatment with you since that’s my patient and I have to respect his privacy. (Oh, great, bring up privacy in this completely non-private meeting.) OK, fine, I can understand that, I say — although I can’t understand it at all; he’s personalizing the screamer, not me, and he’s totally evaded the question of relative degrees of craziness (which could be nothing more than odd quirks and/or odd circumstances of behavior) and crazy and profoundly disturbing behavior, such as, say, SCREAMING FOR HOURS in a hallway.
(Sorry for another digression, but speaking of privacy: You have none. Aside from the circumstances just mentioned, consider Visitor Hours: You are guaranteed private visits, according to Rights of Patients, but all visits are are expressly forbidden in your own room and held only in the communal Day Room. Your “private” visit is sitting at a cafeteria-style table next to a bunch of other “private” visits. You can always whisper, I guess, or pass clandestine notes…)
So, I ask the Doc, when can I get out of here? “Oh, well, that depends… Sooner or later.” And both his stern look and tone of voice make it clear that I am not to ask the obvious questions: Depends on what? What’s sooner and what’s later? (Hint: There is really an answer: The Five Rules. (Ed.: He’s coming up to this in just a bit; have a little patience.)
Later that day, or perhaps the day after, I attended one of the “voluntary” classes — I’ll explain later why that’s in quotes — this one on Psychotherapy of all things, and in reply to the question of any particular frustrations we might have, I suggested: Sooner or later; just how evasive and duplicitous can you be? How are we to respond to that as an answer to the rather crucial question of when can I go home?  The Group Leader, or whatever she was to be called, agreed that that was indeed a frustrating kind of thing but offered no solution to the quandary. I am proud to say, however, that I became at that moment the proud author of a Clark 8 meme, which I heard repeated in various tones of irony by my fellow inmates many times later in my short stay.
Hey, some of these people weren’t crazy, and some were crazy smart and talented. There was one young lady, let’s call her Jewel, who was unprepossessing at best, slovenly and stupid-looking at worst. Mostly you knew her as the girl who was perpetually asking you for some sweet she had spied, which you weren’t ever to give her because she’s diabetic. But it turned out that she carried a tablet with her, writing poems throughout the day that while not, say, A. R. Ammons-caliber, were at least as good, most of them better, than those the Times publishes weekly in Metropolitan Diary. She was also an accomplished pianist and has, I’m told, a beautiful voice, though I never got to hear her sing. We also had a self-described physicist and former NASA engineer. Well, at least he said so…

The Five Rules

 I know you’re not supposed to bury the lede (Ed.: for those not conversant with journalistic lingo, burying the lede can be defined as beginning a story with details of secondary importance to the reader while postponing the more essential points or facts), and I apologize for all these digressions, but I promised some detail on screaming, and this seems an appropriate time. Screaming goes on all the time in the Psych Ward; it can happen at any time, day or night, but it happens multiple times every day. But it doesn’t happen like you see it in the movies or on TV shows, where somebody goes nuts for a few seconds and screams, say, Where am I? Where am I? Where am I? OK, that dramatic moment has been established, and now the storytelling goes on. That’s not the way it works in a Psych Ward. In a Psych Ward the Where am I? is more like WHERE AM I? And it goes on and on and on: It’s not WHERE AM I? three times; it’s WHERE AM I? three hundred times.We had one guy screaming this very question the better part of one morning and afternoon, literally hundreds of times. Only later that evening did he switch to WHERE IS  MY FAMILY? — also at least a couple hundred times at full volume. The next day he switched again, this time to WHERE IS MY DAUGHTER? And that continued much of the day and night. (This guy had tremendous stamina; he continued screaming all of the third day as well.)

Screaming.jpg

It’s still amazing to me that someone could go on for so long, and so loudly, screaming the same thing over and over and over again. Indeed, it struck me as a kind of weird talent that psychos can develop. You know the little game of asking someone to repeat the same words over and over again: Every “normal” person will start screwing up, say, eleven o’clock, after at most a couple dozen times; it doesn’t take long for eleven to become, say, eleben. Not the screamers, though; they can manage perfect repetition of their question, demand, or statement at full volume for a good 10 or 15 minutes at a time. Then stop for a couple minutes and pick it up for another 15 minutes. Then stop again for a bit and pick it up for another 15 minutes. It’s enough to drive you crazy in the Psych Ward…

There are also intermittent screamers. We had a couple of these, including one woman, let’s call her Franny, grossly overweight and on a diabetic diet, who would start screaming I’M HUNGRY for minute after minute immediately after finishing her every breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That kind of gets on your nerves, sure, but nowhere near as much as her other usual scream, STOP SCREAMING AT ME!, which she might direct at anyone at any time who happened to annoy her for whatever reason.  Imagine this particular screaming on a loop, as the American Military is said to use the sounds of a baby crying on an endless “noise stress” loop tape as an instrument of torture. Then try listening to someone screaming STOP SCREAMING AT ME! a few dozen times in a row a few times a day with, again, perfect articulation, and see how you feel.

One of the odder examples of intermittent screaming came from a middle-aged white male patient, who always introduced himself politely as Samuel, but whom all the nurses, assistant nurses, etc., and fellow patients called Bob. He seemed to have a particular habit of picking out certain people — the one with whom he interacted, or tried to, most assiduously while I was there was a young Chinese student at Columbia named Lin who liked to play the piano as a means of calming her nerves (and did it very well; it was a pleasure, completely unexpected, to listen to her) — yes, we had a piano in the Day Room. One evening there, while Lin was playing away, another patient sat down next to her, and Samuel (Bob) immediately jumped to her side as her protector, screaming, GET AWAY, LEAVE HER ALONE — holy shit, a two-clause scream, a novelty here — which caused enough consternation that our supervising nurse — you can’t be in the Day Room without a supervising nurse — felt compelled to call in some muscle, a couple of Black guys, upon which Samuel (Bob) began screaming at them: NIGGER, NIGGER, NIGGER, NIGGER, NIGGER, on and on, over and over. But when I was expecting a race riot, nobody blinked an eyelash, not the patients, not the muscle guys, nor the (Black) nurse. Apparently the Psych Ward is one place where racial epithets don’t matter, don’t even really register — a truly racially-blind utopia (or dystopia!) I began to fantasize: What if I started screaming CUNT, CUNT, CUNT…? Of course, I’d eventually get hauled away, like SamBob, but would I witness before that all the women, color-blind and in harmony, join together to beat the shit out of me… or would there be the same deaf and dumb acquiescence?

Of course, I also wondered why in the hell they couldn’t efficiently, swiftly, and similarly, take care of the WHERE AM I? WHERE IS  MY FAMILY? WHERE IS MY DAUGHTER? guy in the hallway…

OK, on to the buried lede: There is in fact an answer to Depends on what? What’s sooner and what’s later? It’s the Five Rules. I learned these early on, actually, although not formulated as rules so much as an extended off-the-cuff comment from a young lady whom I had congratulated when she told me she was “leaving” early in the afternoon — a successful escapee!. When I asked what were her secrets of success — I was really being facetious because I didn’t know at that time that there were any such things — she very casually said: “Well, eat your food, take your meds, take at least two classes a day, don’t fight with the other patients, and don’t fuck with the doctors.”

I didn’t really take all this in at the time, certainly not as true Rules. After all, this was a very impromptu conversation with a girl I hardly knew, and had talked to only because previously we had shared “Hi” and “Hello” in the hallway once before — a small but rare evidence of mutual sanity and non-hostility. (Customary reaction to “Hi” in the hallway was complete non-recognition, complete incomprehension, or mumble-mumble-mumble. Most folks in the Psych Ward are incapable of or unwilling to socialize, so I thank the Higher Powers that I had Average Joe as a roommate.) But over time I did codify these off-the-cuff remarks into Five Rules, and here they are:

Rule #1: Eat Your Food. Imagine you’re married to a nutrition and diet expert; s/he prepares you perfectly balanced, nutritious meals: a protein, a vegetable, a starch, appropriate condiments, and everything in just the right amount. This is what you get for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the Psych Ward. Now imagine airline food. Now imagine food that’s twice as bad as airline food —  food so bad that you would not only trade for airline food but beg for it. That’s also what you get in the Psych Ward: Food that has been brilliantly conceptually designed but, by the time you get it, tastes like shit. Yes, it’s cold, and everything you’re eating is meant to be eaten hot or at least warm. But that can’t be the whole explanation: There seems to be a series of disconnects between the nutritionist’s brilliant design and the “food” as it is actually served on a tray and has to be eaten.

First couple days, I simply couldn’t eat this shit. Of course, I was drugged out of my mind, but even in that state I instinctively knew that this should not (could not?) be swallowed. Undoubtedly I earned a few demerits, but eventually I caved: (Oh, and more later about “caving in.) I got hungry, I had to eat something, and this was what there was to eat, so I ate it. Of course, it’s not easy to cut up a turkey cutlet, tasty or not, with a plastic fork and spoon, but then you aren’t allowed a plastic knife. On the theory of… what exactly? Why a plastic knife is potentially more dangerous than a plastic fork is beyond me, except if what you’re trying to accomplish is reduce both the efficiency and dignity of your patients.

A couple other things bothered me: The nurses checked what and, especially, how much, you ate. Not much, not good: Demerit. Cleaned the (plastic) plate?: Gold Star. I became a Gold, or at least a Silver, Star Eater (and at least a Gold Star spoon-meat-cutter): I always brought back a “light tray.” I didn’t enjoy this, but it was Rule #1: Eat your food.

Whatever was on the tray, however, that wasn’t eaten (with the exception of milk and juice and (sometimes) fruit (apple or banana) was trashed. (Joe loved fruit, so I usually saved mine for him.) Evidently hospitals are exempted from NYC recycling laws, so meat, vegetables, potatoes, rice, whatever, was simply dumped with everything else: plastic implements, plastic plate and covers. And so much dumped there was uselessly wasted, especially unopened sugar and salt and pepper and maple syrup and grape or strawberry jelly packets. I saved my maple syrup packets for Frannie, who liked to drink them —I’M HUNGRY! I’M HUNGRY! I’M HUNGRY! — although I did have ethical qualms about giving them to a diabetic: But, hey, then she didn’t scream at me, she left me alone. Once I did use a whole packet to manage to get down a portion of (I’m sure, nutritious) oatmeal, which I hate but, hell, I got it down.

Rule #2: Take Your Meds: You do have a certain degree of freedom of choice when it comes to food — you can “order” the next day’s soup, say, instead of meat, and of course you can choose to eat as much of it as you like (but not too little) — but there is no choice when it comes to your meds. You don’t question, you just tilt the meds cup with its pills into your mouth, take the offered water, and swallow. One evening when I was to be given an unprecedented baker’s dozen of pills, I foolishly revolted and said I wanted to know which each and every pill was. OK, nurse said: “This pink one is EGDSFOFDJGFHKL…; the big blue one is your ZKDHCOFJKFGT…; the white one is ASPDOHDFNTHYI…; the little green one is…” OK, I said, I get it, took the med cup and swallowed them all down. This is a fight you can’t win, can’t even discuss, and can only hope that you are getting appropriate meds in appropriate dosages at appropriate times.

Rule #3: Take at least Two Classes Every Day: Classes are given by very well-meaning outsiders but, boy, are they meaningless (except insofar as they fill up little parts of your day.) I took one class is which we practiced throwing one ball to a fellow patient, working up to six balls going simultaneously around a circle to each designated receiver. In another class I learned how to turn a scarf-like material into a… scarf, and later into a free-form expression of emotion; that was undoubtedly a boost to my mental health.

In Class.jpg

In another class, the one on Psychotherapy I mentioned earlier, we were asked to introduce ourselves to the leader and one another: Oddly, each patient introduced him/herself not by name but by diagnosis: I’m Bipolar; I’m a Depressive — Bipolar was most popular for whatever reason — because in the Psych Ward you are not, apparently, you, but your diagnosis. I was next to last to self-introduce and simply followed the others, assuming that this was what was expected: “I’m a Depressive” (I had to guess, since no one had told me what I was.) Average Joe was last and broke the routine with the simple declaration, “Sometimes I think I’m the reincarnation of Christ.” OK, that’s strange, I thought, really, really strange, since I’d had not the slightest hint of anything like religious mania out of Joe. Later I realized this was a sly act of rebellion — and also a reaction to the fact that Joe truly had no idea how or why he had landed in the Psych Ward — oh, and in its humor, a strong sign of mental health! — but humor, sarcastic, ironic, whatever, isn’t appreciated here any more than is questioning your meds or not eating your food. I’m sure Joe got a demerit for that.

Rule #4: Don’t Fight with Other Patients: This would seem to be pretty obvious, but not so to a lot of the patients. There were plenty who could and did unexpectedly fly off the handle at the slightest thing: a look, a word, a movement, sometimes real, sometimes imaginary. This was a easiest rule to obey, at least for me. I wasn’t looking for any kind of confrontation. (Although I sometimes did long to strangle the screamers.) Point is: Fighting could and did break out unpredictably, anywhere, anytime, for any “reason.”

During my stay in Clark 8 the single predictable source of “fighting” — we’re always talking mutual shouting back and forth here, except for a rare instance when a couple blows were thrown — was Roberto’s hogging of one of the two computers in the Day Room as his personal Karaoke machine. “Thirty Minutes Per Person” was the rule that Roberto broke any and every time the Day Room was open. You’d think the computer was not only his personal machine but also one that could play nothing but ’80s and ’90s YouTube videos. Aside from his hogging, what disturbed most of us (all of the ambulatory non-comatose) was Roberto’s “habit” of partially undressing  himself while dancing and prancing around to his (loudly-played) videos. The shirt would come off to be put back on after the supervising nurse’s command, one time after another: pajama legs — oh, did I tell you that most of us were in flimsy hospital pjs most of the time? —  rolled up to show off, I guess his calves and lower thighs — this, too, over and over. Despite the nurses’ stern disapproval, and eventually a petition written and circulated by Lin to shut him down, Roberto’s manic behavior never altered. Maybe he’s happy to be in the Psych Ward, for where else could he indulge himself to his favorite music stripping for a captive audience?

Rule #5: Don’t Fuck with Authority (the Doctors especially but also the Nurses and Social Workers): This, too, pretty much went without saying, or at least became obvious quickly. No matter how perfectly you were following the first four rules, you weren’t going anywhere unless and until the doctor said so (with, presumptively, input from the RNs and Social Workers). But following this rule wasn’t easy, if only because you never knew when or where a doctor might turn up to speak with you. But when one did, whatever else was happening with you then or just prior now became  irrelevant: He speaks, you smile, listen attentively, and when he asks if you’re feeling anxiety — which is, of course, your constant state in Clark 8 — you know to say, No, I’m doing fine, Doc, gee, thanks for asking, I’m taking my meds, eating a bunch, I’m great, doing great. (‘Course he probably doesn’t believe you, psycho.)

The Social Worker is a big deal, too, and she, too, comes and goes as she pleases (at least from your perspective; undoubtedly she’s being pulled and pushed from circumstances beyond your ken). I had one visit from my Social Worker, lasting less than a minute: She could not manage to get out even one complete question or statement to me because our WHERE AM I? screamer was blasting on at full volume and she had already had enough: “I can’t take this” was all she said as she hastily left. Yeah, I thought, I KNOW how you feel…

Anyway, just don’t mess with the Man. It screws you in the long run and provides little comfort in the interim. You can ask the most perfectly logical question, you can make the most perfectly logical suggestion, but it’s to no avail: The doc parrots back PROCEDURE and PROTOCOL (whatever it happens to be in respect to your question or suggestion), and there are no heights, or depths, to his dissembling in “answering” you and re-establishing PROCEDURE and PROTOCOL. If you fight with another patient, you are just the bigger idiot for fighting with the village idiot, but if you “question” your doctor, you are Winston disobeying Big Brother’s law and order and you are destined to take the big pipe.

So, you cave; you cave to eating the inedible food, cave to taking the always mysterious medley of meds, cave to showing up for and “participating” in kindergarten “classes,” cave to virtually isolating yourself lest you inexplicably end up “fighting” with  a fellow patient, and above all you cave to Authority. This may be the most insidious aspect of spending even the most minimal amount of time in the Psych Ward: You can’t get out if you don’t give up.

But it’s actually worse than that: After giving up, giving in, guess what? The food becomes okay, you get it down, you’re not hungry any more. The meds, well, they slow you down, but in doing so you really lose the energy to question them, you just get used to them and you are, indeed, fine with them. The classes? They kill time for you, which is precious because, as I said before, you have nothing to do and all the time in the world to do it, and you even end up having a little “fun” (however imbecilic it may seem).

The Five Rules do work; ceteris paribus, following them will get you out of the Psych Ward: But you begin for the first time to really understand the Stockholm Syndrome, because, guess what, you’re feeling it. You begin to identify with your captors. (And “captors” is not hyperbole: You’re legally in their custody and care, and while your Rights of Patients say you can fight for your release, just try it and see how far you get.)

Hell, stay in Clark 8 long enough and you may not really want to leave: Per, once again, Hotel California, “We are all just prisoners here of our own device…. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

 

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The Farm on Staten Island — Nonfiction by Robert Iulo

  On their first Easter on Staten Island, my grandmother insisted her brother and his new wife come to Manhattan for dinner. She didn’t want them to be alone for the holiday on what she consid…

Source: The Farm on Staten Island — Nonfiction by Robert Iulo

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The Caring Internet

Yes!, despite all recent evidence to the contrary, there is a caring Internet, an Internet “more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before,” as John Barlow Perry long ago declared in his, uh, “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” There indeed yet remains an Internet that reminds us more of the promise(s) foretold during those dark days of the mid-90s — yep, they, too, were dark days — by Chris Locke and his collaborators in the Cluetrain Manifesto, than the Internet portrayed, neither inaccurately nor spitefully, by Farhad Manjoo in his recent NYT column:

Wouldn’t it have been kind of a pleasant dream world, in these overheated last few weeks, to have lived free of social media?…. Your social feed has always been loud, shrill, reflexive and ugly, but this year everything has been turned up to 11. The Islamic State’s use of the Internet is perhaps only the most dangerous manifestation of what, this year, became an inescapable fact of online life: The extremists of all stripes are ascendant, and just about everywhere you look, much of the Internet is terrible.

Yeah, so indeed we face the hilarity of Hillary and The Donald suggesting that it might be kind of a good thing if we could just sort of, you know, shut down the Internet, or at least the bad parts of it — neither of course able or even attempting to articulate just how we might intelligently discriminate between the bad and the good parts or exactly how we would go about doing the shutting down.

Well, Farhad, I feel your pain — and your exasperation, at both the real world events — “Terrorism, intractable warfare, mass shootings, a hyperpartisan presidential race, police brutality, institutional racism and the protests over it” — and the Internet’s “escalating, infinite loops of 140-character, knee-jerk insta-reaction.” Yeah, just like reading the NYT every morning, it really does seem lately that “much of the Internet is terrible” and much of the world is fucking terrible.

Much of the Internet is terrible, though? How exactly do we quantify this, since we are talking about the Internet, after all, which is figuratively, if not literally, unquantifiable? (Maybe the Internet is literally quantifiable by, say, IBM Watson, at particular microseconds, but who really cares about such an academic exercise?) I maintain there is still very much alive and kicking a Caring Internet, and I give you here its (or her) picture:

Aged Hippie.jpg

Okay, it’s not an official portrait of the Caring Internet, nor even of that (relatively) teeny-tiny 33 million+ member part of the Internet that goes by Care2.com. It’s just a tongue-in-cheek self-portrait/caricature (My Page Billboard) of one of those 33MM+ members and one of the couple hundred or so people that I interact with daily on the Internet on the Care2 site. She’s one of my “friends” or what I choose to call my social friends; we’ll talk later about this admittedly ungainly construction. Let’s call her Roxy, a name I’ve made up just this moment, for the purpose of this post, since I have no right to call her by her real name, if indeed the name she uses on Care2 is her real name at all. Some people don’t use real (people) names at all, and some don’t even bother with an avatar. I, for one, do use my real name on the site, though you can also find me there by my avatar, Spike of Broadway, may he RIP.

I’m not a real sociologist of the Care2 community, nor even a pretend one, but I assure you that Roxy is representative of much of the population I encounter on the site, over which I range rather freely (and, as I’ve said, daily. First, Roxy is female, which seems to be true of all social networks. (A real sociologist told me that.) But Roxy is also let’s say in her 60s and is or was or still somehow strives to be a Sixties’ Hippy. She loves Peace and music and animals.

So Care2 skews female, Boomer, and sorta-kinda lefty. Of course, there are plenty of guys on Care2, and guys and gals in their 20s, 30s, and so on. (A noticeable minority says they are 115 years old, and those who do so invariably identify themselves as female, for what that’s worth.) And while (based on server names) the site seems to have originated and operates in Australia, it also skews North American. Still, I have Care2 friends of all ages from the EU, Nordic countries, the Balkans, South and Central American, South East Asia, etc., etc., too many countries (and even counties) to name. Care2 is as global and stubbornly local as Facebook.

Of course, you don’t need to have “friends”or socialize in any way on Care2. Care2 is a click-to-donate site, transparently and unapologetically “supported” by advertising, lots and lots of relevant and irrelevant advertising: Click to donate to a cause — Rainforest, Big Cats, Animal Rescue, Stop Violence (Against Women), Oceans, Children, etc. — and the identified advertisers promise a micropayment for that click. A cheap easy way to feel good about yourself, to be a no-sweat activist for your cause(s)? Sure, that’s one way to look at it, not exactly inaccurate but, oh, somewhat cynical and decidedly judgmental. Maybe you actually do other things for your causes besides click-to-donate…

Hey, and as you click-to-donate, you earn Butterfly Rewards, or credits, which you can then redeem for: humanely raising animals, planting trees, feeding kittens, saving turtle-hatchlings, all kinds of do-good feel-good things. (A cheap easy way to feel good about yourself, to be a no-sweat activist for your cause[s]? Sure, that’s one way to look at it…) You can also earn Butterfly Rewards by reading articles (“We write over 50 stories a day ranging from animal issues to human rights to healthy living tips and so much more”); sending birthday greetings to your friends on the site (Because “You’ve brightened someone’s day and made the world a better place” — okay, hippy-dippy, but would you say inaccurate?); and of course signing (and creating) Petitions. So you do stuff on the site, which is satisfying in and of itself, and you earn rewards which you can the “turn into meaningful gifts” to the causes you care about. More on this later.

But to me the most interesting, and satisfying, thing about Care2 is the befriending business. I actually came late to this part of the community — for years I just did the click-to-donate and petition-signing, same as with other similar sites, but eventually I began getting “friend” requests — indeed, like Facebook, and I was equally suspicious — but, as with Facebook, I was too much the gentleman to turn them down. And, unlike with Facebook, I didn’t even remotely “know” any of these people, which was actually a big plus. As I accumulated Care2 friends, I also began receiving Green Stars:

What is a Green Star? It’s a simple “Thank You” from a Care2 member. There’s no need to respond. The sender is simply acknowledging that you’ve made a contribution to the community. Green Stars may be sent because you made a good post in a discussion forum, or because you took the time to make your personal profile interesting, or for a thousand other good reasons.

Unlike Butterfly Rewards, you can’t do anything with Green Stars, except just count ’em up, I guess, although the site already does that for you. But I found that once you start getting Green Stars, you want to give them as well, and I now freely, but with discrimination, do. There’s a virtuous reciprocity here that is functionally similar to but emotionally wholly different from the cluster-fuck vituperation that Farhad finds characteristic of our loud, shrill, reflexive and ugly social feed that’s making so much of the Internet terrible. I don’t want to sound like Johnnie Sunshine here, but “much of the Internet” is not terrible. Depending on where you go and what you do and with whom you associate, “the Internet” can indeed be terrible, but it can also be thoughtful and caring and impactful. Care2 is just one small but not inconsequential example of the latter.

But back to the friend thing on Care2. I get “friends” on Facebook; these are people who know you, or once did, in some manner, and whom you know or knew, even if much of the time you might struggle to remember exactly who, what, when, where, or why you knew this now friend-seeking person. It might even be that the only thing you do remember about this person is the single simple fact that you’ve always avoided them. But at least you know that. I don’t know any of my friends on Care2; I might like to, but I don’t ever expect, unless by sheer felicitous accident, to encounter them anywhere or anytime except on Care2.

When you send a friend request on Care2, you’re asked to identify your “primary connection” to this person as either Personal; Professional; Family; Other. Well, Other is a pretty forgiving category so that’s what I always choose, but I feel a little defeated every time I do so. Personal? Not really; I have no truly personal knowledge of this person: She seems like an un-celebrated but equally admirable Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and with a silly sense of humor, but for all I know she’s an ISIS operative awaiting orders to strike. There needs to be another category option here, some more apposite and pleasing version of social (network) friend.

Whatever that may be, and I’m certainly open to suggestions, I will say that while I don’t feel I really know any of these people, they are one hell of a lot more important to me than many of my Facebook friends. (As are, for instance, just to name a few other people I never knew, Henry James, Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, John Lennon.) My Care2 friends are active members of a caring community, which comprises me as well.

And they are active. It’s easy to underestimate such activism, and to condescend to it as armchair activism or Slacktivism. I think this is not only ungenerous but wrong. We can’t all be manning the barricades all the time and even those who do man the barricades are dependent on a network of pitch-in supporters. No, it doesn’t take much to sign a petition online but, when you do, you are sending a message, staking out a position, lending hope, supporting others, you are caring, publicly. And guess what? More often than you’d imagine, the petition actually works, especially the local and hyper-local ones. (Okay, the 20 or so I’ve signed over the years against automatic weapons haven’t made a dent.)

Oh, and as for Twitter — where I actually spend much more time than on Care2 — let me just say that you get there what you deserve. If your Twitter feed is loud, shrill, reflexive and ugly, you have only yourself to blame. You picked these people, you know. (Okay, you didn’t pick the mindless ads.) Unfollow the vituperative cluster-fuck and don’t be vituperative yourself and your Internet won’t be terrible.

 

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