Point/Counterpoint

BENJAMIN KESSLER

Over the last few months I’ve become active on a website called Point/Counterpoint. On Point/Counterpoint a statement is presented—our nation’s government is controlled by lizard people, say—and then users in the thread argue in support or opposition of that claim. After the thread is locked, other users vote on which response best refutes or validates the initial statement. Once the voting period is over, the statement and its top-rated response are archived into a sort of digital ledger, associated with one another until the internet eventually ceases to exist, though I am told this will never happen.     

 

“They beam it out into space,” Callum says. “Every page ever coded in the history of the web. There’s an alien server farm on a distant moon picking up everything.” Callum changes sheets at the teaching hospital on the campus where I work as a postdoctoral researcher. He often sits next to me in the campus cafeteria when I take my lunch. Everyday he eats the same exact thing: two slices of pepperoni pizza and a coffee mug full of swirled soft serve. Despite this he is rail thin. It was Callum who introduced me to Point/Counterpoint. His screen name is No_the_Truth. I haven’t told Callum my screen name, though he needles me about it every time the site comes up in conversation. 

 

Users in Point/Counterpoint are maintained in a ranking hierarchy based on the amount of votes their responses have received. I am at the novice level, meaning less than fifty people have agreed that my responses are the most valid. Power users, those with many thousands of votes, have a badge beside their avatar, a small gold medallion with a star in the middle. There’s no tangible reward for becoming a power user. Perhaps clout, I suppose, among a like-minded set of relatively anonymous individuals. Though votes from a power user are worth ten of a single novice vote, so those who wish to climb the leaderboards follow them around, sycophantically agreeing with their posts with the slim hope that the favor will someday be returned. 

 

Callum is not a power user. He is only one level above me, though he’s been on the site much longer. Clicking on his screen name brings up his profile. His avatar is of an anime character with large breasts. There is a link to his Twitter account, but I don’t dare click it. Callum tends to only participate in threads about government conspiracy. In these threads, though his points are well-reasoned (given a skewed internal logic), the power users eat him alive, attacking his posts directly. It’s especially toxic, even for the internet. 

 

“I’ve been swatted before,” he says one day as we are bussing our trays.

 

“What’s that?”

 

“Somehow people online get your personal info and report something like a fake bomb threat or a bogus domestic violence call at your home address. Then, lo and behold, you're sitting on your ass eating popcorn from the bag and the police are pointing a gun down your peephole. My mother nearly had a heart attack when she came down and saw me pinned against the wall, one arm bent behind my back.”

 

“What did you do?” We were nearly at the point every day where we parted ways, but this time Callum walked beside me as I made my way back to the Life Sciences Building.   

 

“What could I do but try to explain? Well, as best I could with the flat of some guy's hand against my face.”

 

“What did you say?”

 

“Just that it was some kind of awful prank. When they saw there was no danger they left. They didn’t even pick up the potted plant they knocked over.”

 

One of the unspoken rules of Point/Counterpoint is to acknowledge the site’s existence as infrequently as possible. Ostensibly, this is to keep it hidden, but really I think that most users would simply feel shame if other people knew they frequented the site. Every so often Point/Counterpoint appears in local news, misunderstood by anchors in starched suit coats. Are your children logged in to something dangerous? Find out more at eleven. Admitting to using it can feel like social suicide.

 

“Cost of the game though, am I right?” Callum holds his hand up for a high five, and when it’s clear I am not going to reciprocate he stuffs it back into his pocket. “So, anyway, I’ll see ya.” He waves goodbye and walks toward the hospital, causing a crowd of young people on a campus tour to part around him. 

 

I’ve yet to receive enough votes on any of my responses to enter the archive, though I have gotten close. “There was never a hole in the ozone layer,” was the posit, and seeing as I was studying atmospheric chemistry I felt capable of forming a reasonable argument. My response, with links to peer reviewed data and thorough academic research, garnered only second place. It was no small margin. A screen name I had seen before, XxSanDiego4xX, captured the top spot with a one word answer: duh. He hadn’t even bothered to capitalize.    

 

I assume XxSanDiego4xX is a he. The barrelchested arguments and profuse use of the word “faggot” make me think that Point/Counterpoint is expressly populated by men. XxSanDiego4xX’s avatar is a slight figure with a bandana draped over its nose and mouth, like an Old West bankrobber. He is a frequently archived poster, a perennial power user. Looking at the overall leaderboard reveals that he is among the top five percent of Point/Counterpoint users. I’ve been seeing him more in threads, always dominating, always with some pithy, short, nothing answer. To the statement, “Chemtrails cause cancer,” he took the first place spot by only responding with a single exclamation point. It was like a finger in the eye of everyone else in the thread.   

 

“Oh yeah, he means business. Big dick energy.” Callum has begun to wear a surgical mask everywhere he goes. He tells me he is afraid of superbugs, diseases for which medical science has no cure. He believes that, by working in a hospital, he has privileged information about public health. To eat, he removes the mask briefly, takes a bite, and then replaces it while he chews. “Word on the forums is that he can get other users shadowbanned.”

 

“What does that mean?”

 

“He’ll talk to someone, I don’t know, say, a site moderator, and they make it so that you can still post, but no one can see anything you do. Typing into a black hole. And you have no idea. It’s maddening. People have lost their minds over less.” He lifts the mask and spoons ice cream into his mouth.

 

After lunch I sit at my desk and open my Point/Counterpoint account. Normally I don’t browse anywhere but at home. It’s not something I want in my browser history at work. I find a recent post (“Insects have no soul”) on which XxSanDiego4xX has posted and open his profile. His activity log shows ten archived posts in the last two days. My cursor hovers over his bandana’d face, tracing the paislies. If his username is to be believed, he lives in the same town as I do. 

 

A grad student passes by and I shut my laptop so quickly I worry I’ve broken the screen.     

 

On the light rail home all I can think about is logging in, finding one or two questions I can really nail. The people who run the site—who no one seems to know, or if they do know, they don’t acknowledge—have made it so the site can’t be accessed on mobile devices. Callum tells me this is for security. Anyone can hack into your phone, he says. And then think of what can get out into the world?

 

I don’t enjoy Point/Counterpoint for the same reason Callum does. He believes it to be a crucible of thought and that his contributions are an addition to the only true contemporary discourse. He is earnest in his devotion to the ideas born from the site. I’m not interested in the subject matter. Rather, posting allows me to exercise the rhetorical parts of my brain, those that get less use now that my work is all definites and figures. A dormant part of my brain fizzes when I finally hit return and my post appears in the chain.      

 

Waiting for the new statements to drop is equally exhilarating. During the day there is a countdown timer on the homepage. I’ve begun to structure my evenings so that I am in front of the computer before the next batch goes live at seven. There are ten a day, all from different topics: law, medicine, religion, psychology, etc. If I were married, the regiment of Point/Counterpoint would probably have driven a wedge between my partner and I.  

 

When I get home I throw my things onto the couch and immediately head for the computer. For ten minutes I watch the clock tick down, endlessly refreshing my browser while my legs are knotted beneath my desk. Then, finally, the questions are revealed. Nothing leaps out to me so I choose one that is vaguely scientific: “You are simply a brain in a jar, imagining all of this.”

 

Users only have thirty minutes to submit a response, and normally I take nearly all of that time planning and typing, flitting around the internet doing research. There are only two minutes left by the time everything is drafted, and I reload the page to see what other things are being submitted. Gradually the other posters emerge, and there, near the top, is XxSanDiego4xX. His response is two words: burble burble. 

 

It’s guaranteed to get the most votes. If I’m lucky I’ll place in the top three, maybe get a little bit closer to the next level. I’ve come to the realization that as long as XxSanDiego4xX is in the same thread as I am I cannot win, not playing the game like I do. I highlight my response, bordering on nearly five hundred words, and allow my finger to hover over the backspace key. I want to be archived so badly. I think about it all the time. 

 

I delete. I type. Take the low road. Two words, five characters: no, u.

 

I hit submit before I can question myself further, four seconds left on the timer. Soon the responses are greyed out. No one involved with the thread can touch them again or vote. I darken my monitor and migrate to the kitchen where I bake and eat an entire frozen pizza. The results of the voting won’t be made public for twelve hours. I’ll have to wait until morning. Even though tomorrow is a saturday I will wake up early and check. I worry I won’t be able to sleep, but five or six beers solve that problem on my behalf.

 

I suppose I feel rather compromised. My rhetoric and method thrown away in an attempt to out snark someone I will go my entire life most likely never meeting, over internet points that hold no sway in the world of rational, physical human beings. Day after day I pour myself into spectrometer readings from arctic ice cores, comment anonymously in the margins with a felt pen. It fails to give me a feeling of fullness. The world of nuanced and strategic thought has left me with an ulcer, and raising my hackles on Point/Counterpoint somehow fills me soundly. 

 

Waking up the next day is easy, I am propelled by an anxious energy. I have a weekly alarm set for seven am on both saturday and sunday. This gives me twenty minutes to make breakfast and ten minutes to sit in front of my computer screen, waiting for the results from last night’s voting. Again and again I pick up and put down my coffee, taking short, breathy sips. I’ve never been this nervous over a response before. A dog howls in the apartment above my own, as though it can sense it too. A minute before the reveal I putter about, checking to ensure the cable that supplies my internet is plugged in fully, closing nonessential browser tabs. I worry the mouse clicker beneath my finger and needlessly spin the scroll wheel.

 

Then, automatic, two red exclamation points materialize above my profile: The votes on your most recent response are in! I dismiss it and the second message appears in its place: Congratulations! A response you recently submitted has been archived. 

 

I take a screenshot, then another. It takes everything in me to stop bouncing up and down in my chair. My response not only received enough votes to archive, but I shot up to the level of “regular.” What’s even better is that XxSanDiego4xX’s response wasn’t even a close second. It finished somewhere in the teens.  

 

I wander around the apartment for a bit, releasing pent up energy by pacing my kitchen, quietly content. When I sit back down there is another red exclamation mark, this time hovering above the messages icon.  

 

The rule of thumb is to avoid opening IMs sent through Point/Counterpoint’s system, unless you’re interested in phony car warranty alerts or want to illegally stream pay-per-view boxing from SouthEast Asia. Though perhaps because I am still on the earlier high and feel I have nothing to lose, I click the little letter icon and open the message. It is from XxSanDiego4xX: dude, not cool.

 

I read those three words over and over, inflecting them in my mind in every imaginable way. I rifle through his response history. Last night alone he’d gotten three other posts archived. I think about responding, but stop myself. I have nothing to say to XxSanDiego4xX, so I simply close out of my browser and dress for the gym. I won’t give him any attention.

 

I spend the rest of the day feeling lifted, barely noticing that seven pm has come and gone. I get to my computer twenty minutes after the statements have been posted, find one I like (“When paired with medical science, prayer can help cure disease.”) and scan for XxSanDiego4xX in the thread. He isn’t there, and for the first time in nearly two months I don’t post at all. I close the browser with eight minutes left, content to watch television and fall asleep on the couch. Perhaps I have peaked. What else can I achieve? I don’t know that I want to be a power user. I’ve always been the small-pond type. 

 

Sunday passes similarly. I spend the whole day not thinking about Point/Counterpoint or XxSanDiego4xX. Sure, I check the statements when they drop—a calendar notification on my phone pings me every night at ten til—but I don’t look at them long and choose not to respond. Instead I practice guitar for a half-hour and go to sleep on clean sheets feeling sated.

 

Next morning on the light rail on my way to campus I receive a text message from an unknown number with a local area code.      

 

no response? what, r u scared?

 

I darken the screen and set the phone face down in my lap. Maybe it is a wrong number, but I know it isn’t. I know exactly who it is.

 

“Your persona is compromised,” Callum says. He tries to open up the text again, but the latex gloves he is wearing don’t interact with my phone’s touchscreen. Another pandemic protection, in addition to the surgical mask which he still wears. “What did you do to this guy to make him so upset?”

 

I tell him about my success on Point/Counterpoint, though not the specific statement I responded to—I don’t want Callum to find me—and about the IM from XxSanDiego4xX. Callum begs to know my username, but I still won’t tell him.

 

“Well, if he can find your phone number, then someone like me can find out your handle like it’s nothing.”

 

He’s bluffing, probably. Callum barely knows how to work the copier at the hospital. But then again maybe it is that easy. Maybe anyone can find out anything about anyone else with a few lucky searches. 

 

“What else do you think he could know?” I ask.

 

“Lots, maybe. Your home address, email passwords, even your social.” Callum stirs his melted soft serve.

 

“But I didn’t put any of that into the site.”

 

“Didn’t put your phone number in either.” He shoots me a look like he’s just taught me something. He’s right, of course. 

 

“I’m not going to respond. I’m going to let this die. That’s what they say with antagonizers, right? Don’t engage?”

 

“I hope that works.” He lifts his mug of ice cream and I cheers it with my water glass. 

 

I delete the text from my phone. Walking back to my office I’m acutely aware of the network of security cameras around campus, of how many times my face has been captured and etched onto a hard disk. For the rest of the day I can’t focus on my work. Twelve-thousand years of glacial history slides by beneath the scope, and all I think about is how much XxSanDiego4xX might know about me. I can count the people who know my phone number comfortably on two hands. I don’t know anything about XxSanDiego4xX, really, except for what I can assume from his profile photo and his penchant for sarcasm. He could work on the same campus, in the same building. He could be a student, or one of the people who dish mashed potatoes onto my lunch tray. He could live in the apartment above my own.

 

The next day I arrive home from work to find a package on my doorstep. It’s a nondescript cardboard box, shipped express by US Mail. There’s no return address, but mine, the recipient’s, is cleanly printed on a label. It even has my middle name. I’m afraid to pick it up, so I nudge it over the threshold with my foot and kick it into the corner near a pile of shoes. It is light, barely anything inside. I can tell by the ease by which it slid across the linoleum.  

 

I call the non-emergency law enforcement number, report harassment, but they tell me that, unless I am in immediate danger I should simply throw the box in the garbage. But then that would mean touching it, holding it. For now I will let it sit. 

 

That night I dream of the box growing legs and walking into my bedroom. It stands over my sleeping body and watches me breathe. When I wake my stomach is bloated with nausea, and as I leave the apartment I make a conscious effort not to look at the package at all.

 

“What do you think’s inside?” Callum now wears a full plastic face shield. He levers it up like a welder’s mask to take bites.

 

“I don’t know. I don’t want to know. Felt like nothing, like it was full of air.”

 

“Could be some disease.”

 

I shoot Callum a suspecting look.

 

“It’s true. Soviets did it all the time. Release an airborne pathogen into the packaging and then when some poor jagoff at the Federal Reserve opens it, WHAM.”

 

“That sounds like an urban legend.”

 

“I could open it for you. I have a hazmat suit. Bring it over.”

 

I shrug the suggestion off. I don’t want to see Callum’s home. I picture the walls covered in aluminum foil. I also don’t want to advance our friendship past this stage. I wonder if this makes me a bad person. Of course it does.

 

There are two packages this time waiting for me when I get home. Same size as before, same weight. I push them over into the same spot where the first still sits. I don’t want to put my fingerprints on them. Not that my fingerprints are in any database that I know of. I’ve never been arrested. But then I think that there is probably a lot about me available of which I have no idea. 

 

I log in to Point/Counterpoint and look at XxSanDiego4xX’s profile. He hasn’t been active since the day I was archived. The little circle near his avatar that shows me whether or not he is online is blank. I send him an IM. I try to be non-confrontational. I don’t know who I am dealing with yet. 

 

Are you sending me packages?

 

Nothing. Then, the small circle is filled in and three dots appear in the chat window. He is typing. The dots go away and come back again. This pattern repeats for nearly ten minutes. My eyes are strained from staring at the screen, afraid that if I look away for even a moment I will miss something. After a half-hour of the same disappearance and reappearance, I log out and power down the computer. 

 

I receive more packages each day, fifteen by week’s end. My front door bangs against them piled loosely in the corner. On Monday, Callum and I eat lunch together in silence. This works out, because not only do I not want to talk about it, but he has also donned another layer of surgical masks. I can barely hear when he speaks. 

 

I haven’t thought much about what is inside of them, the packages. Well, I have, but only in the sense that whatever’s there is most likely dangerous. What if XxSanDiego4xX is getting me to try and incriminate myself? The packages are full of drugs or evidence in some unsolved crime. That would show me, wouldn’t it, for upstaging him?

 

Instead of going straight home after work I go to a coffee shop near campus. I can assume what is waiting for me at home, stacked outside the door. The cafe is full of young people, most of them students. Every so often the hiss of a milk steamer sounds over everything. The air smells wonderfully of ground coffee. I order a cappuccino and sit near the window, watch the streetcar pass every ten minutes. At the opposite end of the cafe a young man seems to stare at me. When I notice, he pulls back behind his laptop screen. I watch him in my periphery as he gets up and loiters around the takeaway counter, glancing at me side eye. I take a sip from my drink even though it was empty nearly five minutes ago. Someone calls for me, but it’s only a man with a similar name picking up an order. When I try to find the mystery person again they are gone, and without drawing attention to myself I quickly pan the cafe, searching. The milk steamer goes off again, but the barista is called away to some other something and it whines and whines. Someone spills a drink and there is clatter to clear a path for the mop bucket. Suddenly there is noise and people talking loudly to be heard and the whining steamer whinging whining. 

 

A tap on my shoulder. 

 

“Excuse me?” A face, unshaven, smiling like an idiot. The man who I had been watching. “I thought it was you, but I wasn’t sure!” He stands above me, lording over. 

 

“Have we met before?”

 

“You were the TA in one of my intro classes. With Dr. Slocum?” He sits across from me. 

 

Instead of the worry draining out of me, it concentrates in my throat and I have trouble getting the words out. He’s harmless, simply wondering if I know professor so-and-so, whether or not they are still writing rec letters for students. I tell him I don’t know and he writes his email address down on the back of my receipt so that, when I find out, I can get back to him. Then he thanks me and leaves. I watch as he hops into a car driven by a woman who could very well be his mother. I run to the bathroom and dab my face with a soaked paper towel. Blotches of red have spread out across my chest. 

 

There is only a single package waiting for me on my doorstep. Though it is nearly three times as large, it weighs the same as the others. I edge it into the apartment with my shoulder, where it leans against the kitchen counter. A “handle with care” sticker has been strategically placed near the address label, an arrow drawn pointing at my name.

 

I wrestle the garbage bag from its canister and take it to the back alley dumpster. I reach for the deadbolt but find it unnecessary: it is already unlocked. I set the garbage down slowly and relock the door. He was in my house, could still be in my house. I grab the nearest blunt object—an old curtain rod I had been meaning to throw out—and begin to make my way cautiously through the apartment. I ease doors open at arm’s length, peer behind the drawn shower curtain. I even look in absurd places, like the cramped space between the toilet and wall. There is nothing. There isn’t even anything out of place. Regardless, the curtain rod still in hand, I call the police.

 

“And you say you know who the perpetrator is.” Two uniformed officers stand in front of the fireplace. They barely pay attention to anything I say, as though they are inconvenienced to be here at all. They’re not even taking notes. Though they did ask me to put the curtain rod down.

 

“I do.”

 

“Does this individual have a name?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“You don’t know if they have a name?” They take turns speaking like it’s some kind of game.

 

“I know him from online. He doesn’t use his real name.”

 

The officers exchange a knowing look. “Sir, if you can’t give us a name, and nothing was taken, then there’s not really much we can do. Maybe you could tell us what site you know him from?”

 

“It’s just, the internet, I don’t know. It’s not important.” I don’t want to tell them about Point/Counterpoint. I remember the rule.  

 

For a moment the three of us are silent. I can see their cruiser through the window. Someone has stopped on the sidewalk to look inside of it. Then they turn and look inside at me. They linger, face shrouded by a hooded sweatshirt, before moving on and out of sight. 

 

“Sir, perhaps can I suggest that, after what seems to have been a rather stressful week,” the officer motions to the packages piled up, dishes accumulating in my sink (had I let it get that bad?), “that you just let it slip? It happens. You said nothing was stolen, not even touched. Is it possible you just forgot to lock the door when you left home this morning?” 

 

I tell them no, it’s very unlikely, and we converse unfruitfully for a few more minutes before they shake my hand and walk back to their cruiser.

 

After they leave I go straight to my computer and log in to Point/Counterpoint. I’m past the cutoff for being able to post, but I see that XxSanDiego4xX is online. I open the IM window.

 

Were you in my house? 

 

The three dots appear again, but this time after they disappear there is a response.

 

have you got a hard on for me or something?

 

I have him, here. Each blink of my cursor seems to pass in quarter time. 

 

Were you in my house today?

 

no

 

But you did send me those packages.

 

yeah

 

How do you know my address?

 

you should be using a proxy IP, really, if you’re going to be on here

 

Are they dangerous, the packages?

 

are you high?

 

What’s going to happen if I open them? My fingers are trembling, clattering the keys on their plastic switches. What’s inside of them?

 

dude, calm down. i was just trolling you. relax. theyre fine. you havent checked yet? go see. ill be here. but im done fucking with you.

 

Then there is the repetition of the dots again, on and off like he is flipping a switch. I know what this means: conversation over. I am dismissed. 

 

I decide to wait until tomorrow to open the boxes. I will invite Callum. I feel like there should be a witness, just in case XxSanDiego4xX lied in our chat. Only Callum isn’t at lunch when tomorrow comes. He has literally never missed lunch before and I go to the teaching hospital to see if he is around. 

 

Very sick, I am told by a receptionist. 

 

“Hospital sick?” I ask.

 

Yes, the receptionist says, but one across the city. It’s sealed off, quarantined for special cases. No visitors. I ask for the address anyway and she says it’s no use. They won’t let me in for anything. 

 

That night I place the boxes, finally holding them in my hands, feeling their lack of meaningful weight, onto the coffee table. I open them one by one with a boxcutter. The special tape snaps as the blade moves through it. Inside each package, even the largest one, is a single sheet of paper no larger than a business card. They each read: “no, u.”

 

I log in to Point/Counterpoint, just in time for the drop. XxSanDiego4xX is online, primed. The countdown timer expires and I select, “It is morally unethical to clone another living thing.” I do no research. I simply type and type. XxSanDiego4xX sends me an IM but I don’t answer it. I submit my response, a rambling diatribe, not knowing if I have been shadowbanned.

Benjamin Kessler's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, DIAGRAM, Pithead Chapel, Jet Fuel Review, Entropy, LandLocked, Epigraph, Superstition Review, Spartan, XRAY Lit Mag, and The McNeese Review, among others. He lives, writes, and raises a hedgehog in Portland, Oregon.

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