I hang out in a lot of places people think are dangerous, the kinds of places where I’m often told to “be careful” or to not trust “people down there,” the sort of places where, invariably, people may be different than me, but they are kind and welcoming. The only place that I have ever found where I can rely on people being mean to me is the place you are right now: the internet.
As a white dude who mostly posts pictures of bicycles, bouldering, and baked goods, I don’t get the worst of this by any means. But even given the relative blandness of my social media feed, about once a week someone will pop into my world, often a total stranger, to say something horrific. Normally this is related to the fact that I like to ride my road bicycle on a road and sometimes I like to ride it on a road without a bike lane, or perhaps without a blinky rear light, or even commit the cardinal sin of riding my bike without a helmet. In real life never, not once, has someone told me that I deserve to literally die for doing those things. But I have about a 30 percent hit rate for those same comments online.
It’s nice to know that sometimes, in a little corner of the internet, we can all just get along.
If you have access to Facebook, this isn’t new news to you, but just about any post with more than five comments has the sort of aggressive bickering and name-calling that, if delivered in person, would devolve into physical violence. Often this is total strangers calling into question each other’s sources, intelligence, and parentage before inevitably comparing each other to Nazis..
But in the Wild West that is the internet, there’s a safe space. A space where people, the very same people who disagree so very ineloquently about almost everything else, spend large chunks of their free time helping each other.
I’m talking, of course, about Toyota truck maintenance forums.
There are a few of them out there. If you own a Toyota truck you probably use them and if you don’t, you really should. On the Toyota forums, you can find just about the sweetest online discourse you’ve ever seen, all about timing belt life, oil weight, and how to change your aging Toyota’s uncomfortable bucket seats for the very affordable but much more comfortable buckets in a mid-90s Acura NSX. For example.
There’s really nowhere else in my life where I, a doctorate-holding, California-living, long-haired vegan Brit who adores his pet cats and chickens can sit down and chat with somebody from Alabama who will not only take the time to help me find reduced price replacement shocks for my truck, but make a Youtube video to explain how to install them.
I’ll sometimes go to the Toyota forums to sell older parts from my truck, and end up meeting people and helping them wrench on their theirs. A few months ago, I replaced my rig’s wheels and tires and ended up letting the purchaser of my 22- year-old rims use my impact wrench to bust the 30-year-old lug nuts off his truck. Sometimes I’ll ask for advice on finding a part, and someone will offer to just send me one. Occasionally, I’ll browse another advice thread and see that the issue was resolved by a commenter traveling to the home of the poster and their immobilized vehicle to help them fix it. Never, not even when disagreements about configurations of light bars and what degree of lift on a Tacoma is too much get heated, have I ever seen anyone compared to Hitler or insulted about their body type.
On occasion, I teach sociology courses at a local university. That’s not something most of the other folks talking about acorn-shaped lugnuts on the internet can probably say, but it does give me a little insight into what’s going on when a stranger helps me find the right ones for my truck. In Ray Oldenburg’s book, “The Great Good Place,” he discusses the importance of a third place in one’s life that is neither home nor work but neutral. This neutral space should be a leveller (without social rank or status playing a large role), a place where people converse, accessible for all, have “regulars” who give the space a general tone and character, have a playful mood and provide a welcoming atmosphere. Many of these things describe the virtual spaces of truck advice forums on the internet (just don’t bring up 4×4 vs 2WD pickups).
Sociologists Berger and Luckmann contend that we take frequent interactions, like those we have online, and habitualize them. Or, to say it like a socologist (which is to use a lot of words to say something most people already understand intuitively) “any action that is repeated frequently becomes cast into a pattern, which can then be … performed again in the future in the same manner and with the same economical effort.” On Facebook or Twitter or comment sections, we might get into the habit of angry replies and personal insults. But in the Toyota forums our habits are different. There’s empathy there. Useful advice. A “howdy partner” hospitality which isn’t encumbered by prejudice based on age or appearance as it would be in the real world.
Of course, this can be found in other forums too. Hiking groups. Climbing groups. Fishing groups. And so on. But there’s something about the pluckiness of Toyota trucks and the adventures that they can provide, that inspires a kind of devotion.
In a wider culture increasingly riddled with tribal identity politics and discord, we can’t solve all our problems with some advice about value tires (pro tip: go to a Toyota dealer and buy the wheels people take off their brand new trucks when they lift them, they’re often less than the cost of the tires) but it’s nice to know that sometimes, in a little corner of the internet, we can all just get along. I even posted a picture of my Shiny new Küat bike rack the other day on a, gasp, truck forum, and someone not only asked me how I liked it but where they could get one too. Maybe there’s hope yet for humanity.
Top photo: Holly Mandarich