Originally Published in Farrago Edition Four (2022)
Let me tell you a story. You may have heard it, in full or in part. Gather round, friends, for the tale of the cowboy.
It all starts on the American Frontier. The Wild West, post-Civil War and recently emancipated, becomes the homeland of the cowboy. They're born of an eclectic mingling of cultures, from Victorian chivalry to Mexican vaqueros, but it works. Traditions, stories, community all flourish. Sure, it's a hard life. The cowboy lives close to homelessness, working long hours for poverty wages. Some steal on the side. They live isolated and lonely lives, and are oft-forgotten by regular society. But many still choose this life. There's a camaraderie, a surprising tolerance, and of course the regular shindig. And so, as the community grows, the myth does too.
The cowboy becomes legend. In a lawless land, they're not quite the mayor or sheriff, but theyre often a force for good--a begrudging peacekeeper, mostly when townsfolk are willing to pay. Riding into town, stopping (or causing) a ruckus in the saloon, then riding on into the sunset. Not perfect, but in an expanse devoid of effective governance, towns take what they get. The myth lives on.
Until a man named Lucien B. Smith has a bright idea. He invents barbed wire. Suddenly, fences and railways can spring up along the once-open plains. Distant towns become interconnected, intertwined, interdependent. The power, money and laws flow out from the cities, and the cowboy is supplanted.
The cowboy watches the end of an era. The landscape shifts around them. They keep their social roles while they remain needed, but they're unprofitable in this new world
Some fight the transforming society they're presented with, but to no avail. The times change, and slowly but surely, industrialisation kills the cowboy.
But the cowboy never truly died.
You see, though the American Frontier disappeared into history, another frontier eventually emerged. A new digital landscape, ripe for exploration and pioneers. WWW: a Wired Wild West. Just as before, isolated communities popped up, devoid of effective legislation- early websites and internet chat rooms. Each one a small corner of the internet, a small digital town with its own quirks and loose social norms.
It's not perfect, of course. The users of these chat rooms are often lonely and socially isolated. In a physical world that seemingly forgets them, they turn to digital solace. Under capitalism, many work long hours and receive only poverty wages. And inevitably, in these communities, arguments arise.
And so, the cowboy is reborn. A different form, a different time, but the begrudging peacekeeper always steps up. In a lawless LAN, they're not a moderator or admin, but they're a force for good. They make friends out of acquaintances and communities out of groups. Some cause a mild ruckus. But they help resolve that ruckus too. The myth lives on.
Until a man named Mark Zuckerberg has a bright idea. He invents Facebook. No single invention wholly redefined the internet, of course, but he's a good scapegoat (or perhaps scapelizard). Suddenly, fences spring up in the digital world too, and the money-making cattle are once more fenced in. Billions of people share a platform which was once an open space. And the money and power flow from the celebrities-from the talk show clips and the TikTok sensations, from Instagram models, MatPat and Musk. Industrialism transforms into internet capitalism, and slowly but surely, it again kills the cowboy.
But the cowboy never truly dies.
No, the cowboy is in all of us. Because wherever there are people, there will be communities. After all, we're built for more than parasocial relationships. We're built for towns, physical or digital. We're built to seek the saloon and find a ruckus. We're built to watch the changing of the times, to see problems in the system and fight them
whether we lose or win. From prehistory to the space age, humans are the same.
No, the cowboy never died. Because people will always find their town. Because the begrudging peacekeeper always, always steps up
Because you are a cowboy too.