For the past 12 years, as the rest of the internet has gradually devolved into a petty, tyrannical, nasty tool for the rapid dissemination of self-serving lies and quasi-fascist rhetoric, one forum has remained dedicated to its core mission: asinine debates about which of two random North American cities is better.
The forum is part of City-Data.com, a website that aggregates data about cities around the world. In 2009, a mod by the username atlantagreg30127 announced "OK, you 'versus' folks finally get your very own room" and set the ground rules.
"The City vs. City forum is strictly for comparing North American cities and areas to each other," atlantagreg30127 wrote, not for comparing North American cities to those in the rest of the world—which, the mod asserted, cannot be fairly compared—or for threads on just one city or place. All conversation must retain a PG-13 rating and "Personal attacks, trolling, and flaming will NOT be allowed."
That forum, called "City vs. City," now has 16,500 threads comparing one North American city to another. Cities compared range from the large ("Chicago (vs) San Francisco") to the smaller ("Fort Collins, CO vs Burlington, VT?") to polar opposites ("Northwest Indiana (Gary) vs. Manhattan") to the time-shifting ("West Baltimore vs. Harlem in the 80's"). Many posts are broad city-to-city comparisons, such as the one on Chicago vs New York City that was closed after about 450 posts because "it's clear that this is a topic that members are unable to discuss in a civil fashion." Others are more specific, like "Which US city has the third best skyline?" (Skyline threads were banned a decade ago but reinstated on a trial basis in 2019.)
There is nothing inherently special about this forum, in that it is the same thing as all other internet forums: a collection of individuals debating relatively obscure issues with a passion disproportionate to its importance. Like all other forums, the overriding question that likely rushes to the mind of outsiders (who cares?) is readily answered by the reply counts in the right-hand column. These people care, at least enough to pass the time here, debating whether, say, Boise is better than Raleigh.
The aspect of this forum that is most interesting to me, reading it now in 2021, is how differently I probably would have reacted to it had I come across it when it began. Because there's no getting around it, "City vs. City" is a silly, pointless way to pass one's time, the type of protracted bar room debate you wish you had never begun because you're locked in a two-way battle of frustration at the other person's stubbornness. It's an urbanist version of sports talk radio, there 24/7 to air your silliest debates under the mistaken belief you or anyone else has nothing better to do.
And yet, City vs. City is a minor miracle, a beautiful place in which people can still do all those things, where the stakes are non-existent and the moderators remain vigilant.
City vs City began at a time when Twitter and Facebook were relatively small services facing many of the same existential questions as this forum, about whether the entire promise of the internet was a deeply revolutionary system that would change the world or a frivolous technology enabling our dumbest instincts to post about food and argue about nothing. The answer, in retrospect, was entirely foreseeable. It was, and remains, both, because the internet is so fully a human endeavor it couldn't possibly be anything other than a senseless combustion of our best and worst attributes.
By far the most popular post on City vs City over the years is the "Where would you rather live?" game, which started in 2015 with a post of someone asking where would you rather live: Chicago or Phoenix? The next reply answered the question (Chicago) and then asked: Palm Springs, California or Scottsdale, Arizona? Someone else answered (Scottsdale) and then asked: Dallas or Atlanta? This has continued for six years, 15,013 posts, and 782,123 views. The most recent post as of this writing, from Tuesday, was: Anchorage, Kentucky or Ponte Vedra, Florida?
In 2007, the same year as the very first "Versus" post on City-Data's forums—before such posts officially had their own room—Twitter's critics weren't worried about whether the platform would be a tool for, say, Nazi recruitment. They were worried it was too frivolous to exist. Even though Jack Dorsey thought Twitter, in Newsweek's words, "can develop into something not only useful but essential," Newsweek quoted Evan Williams saying, "Whoever said that things have to be useful?"
Twitter and Facebook made their decision about which aspect of human nature they most wanted to encapsulate. In addition to enabling me to post dumb remarks about warblers, they now have to decide, say, whether to let a former president use their services to incite riots or allow people to spread lies about vaccines during a pandemic. Life is full of choices.
I'll go with Anchorage. I'm not a beach person.