In Wikipedia, the game “Telephone” is defined as a game where all the players stand in line and the first player whispers a phrase or sentence to the next player. That player then whispers what he or she heard to the next player, and so on. At the end, the last player announces the statement to the group, often to general hilarity because it is so different from the original statement.
I think we need a new format for the game because the internet has made that kind of communication obsolete. “Telephone” was fun because it showed that the normal social conventions for getting information are so unreliable and fragile. We may think we know the truth about something from what we hear from other people, whether news sources or our neighbors, but that trust is often misplaced. The “telephone” game was an appropriate paradigm for this process. In the past, gossip was passed along, caller to caller, until the whole community knew salacious details about someone’s life. But when you traced the information back to the original source, you often found that much of it wasn’t true. Hence, the “telephone” game.
But the “Internet” version of the game makes the old-style “telephone” game a relic of the past. In cultural terms, it’s sitting on the sidewalk waiting for the truck. If any game is going to reflect the way people today go about finding the “truth”, it ought to show how the internet has totally transformed this process.
Like “Telephone”, the “Internet” game only simulates actual social behavior. But instead of people standing in line, it requires a mob of people squeezed into a large room, or a gymnasium. Instead of forming a line, people stand around in no particular configuration, which means that there can be no sequential order for passing on a message. If you want to start a message, you just pick someone standing near you and tell it to him or her. That person, in turn, passes it on to someone near them, and so on. One of the problems is that you might be telling the “message”, or some version of it, to someone who has already heard it before, only they might not even recognize it by then. After all, it just may be a new message from somebody else standing in the mob.
The point is that the internet can be a blessing or a curse, at least with regard to discovering the truth. As far as the “game” is concerned, it isn’t a game at all because you don’t know when it begins or ends. Unlike “telephone”, the joke has no punch line because the original message may never be knowable, and its repetitions may never end. Sure, we may like to think that a fact is a fact; all you have to do is declare it. But, somehow, whatever you say will get repeated by someone, somewhere, with changes made that you may never know about.
I’ve come to believe that there are many people who actually like this about the internet. They like the speed with which you can learn about the world. Perhaps most people like that about it. But I think something is lost in the process. Maybe it’s just the feeling you have that somebody is to be trusted because they are careful about what they say. They want to convince you that they believe it themselves, and they want to show you why they believe it. I think that if you can’t do that, maybe you should just shut up.