Steam, the Internet, and strong emotions

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Thursday, September 22, 2016

A friend of mine restores steam locomotives for a living. He does good work, is a self-confident individual, and enjoys a good reputation. He’s a pretty cool guy, except when it comes to the Internet. He has nothing but disdain for the medium and, as he sees it, people who sit behind computer screens, hide behind made-up names, and critique the hard work that he and others do in the name of fixing and running steam locomotives.

 If it were up to this locomotive mechanic, the Internet would have never been invented. He admits and I agree that it has connected people with others across the country and around the world. Those who love railroads have more opportunities to share their affinity and knowledge than ever before. Those who are involved in working on preservation projects can share their work more readily than ever.

 My friend, however, says little on the Internet about the projects he’s working on. He’s reluctant because he’s seen too much information misinterpreted or worse, turned into something it wasn’t. Remember the expressions of horror online last spring over a western Class I railroad’s decision to no longer hosting steam excursions? The problem was that it was not true. An excursion got cancelled, but a company policy did not change.

 The mechanic is especially concerned when the loud, the obnoxious, and those with vendetta hijack the conversation for their own twisted purposes. If you can try and convict on a discussion page, and you’re also the judge, jury, and executioner, life is easy. Would they some day turn on him? He is concerned enough to keep his head down.

 This isn’t to say that online criticism isn’t worthwhile – it is as long as it remains civil, respectful, and collegial. But when it leads to innuendo, wild speculation, or even hate, it is destructive, not only to the person implicated but to the speaker as well: No one looks good making someone else look bad.

 Steam locomotives stir strong emotions in us all. They should. They’re amazing, remarkable creations, and if you’re not moved by their sight, sound, smell, and feel, then I am sorry for you. Hopefully, more of those emotions are positive, rather than negative.

 The late Bill Purdie, master mechanic of Southern Railway’s steam excursion fleet from 1968 to 1982, had one mission: Keep early 20th century antiques operating on the main line on a shoestring budget. Bill was held in high regard for accomplishing this feat, and he was much beloved because of his big heart. I shudder to think what Internet pundits of today would have said about this fine man and his struggles to keep his fleet of antiques on the road.

 The Internet, of course, will be with us forever. As long as there are railroads there will be rumors and tales spread, just as they have since the beginning of the business. I’d like to say I have a solution to offer, but I don’t. This is a situation that requires each person to think before he or she posts online. It’s about self-discipline. It is about self-respect.

 As I was finishing this post, another friend and I were reviewing the timeline for his project, a highly-anticipated steam restoration, so I can make sure it gets appropriate coverage online and in print. He’s pretty proud of the work that has gone into it, but as we were finishing up, he told me something that surprised me: “I won’t announce the first fire-up. As much as I’d like to, I have enough people online telling me what I am doing wrong.”

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