If you count my very first publication, I've been writing online for just about 10 years. Unlike people who know better, I've also spent a fair amount of that time reading the comments. I do that for lots of reasons. One is narcissism. Why bother casting a stone out into the lake if you don't want to watch the ripple it makes? Comics don't tell their jokes behind a wall of soundproof glass, right? But another reason is because even though comments sections are filled with some of the worst people in the world, you can usually learn something by throwing yourself into the mix, and exposure to contrary, even wrong-headed opinions can help crystallize your own beliefs.
We're so happy and well-balanced, we couldn't possibly be online right now.
Someday, I might write more about mistakes I've made and what I've learned about myself through the Internet (like I did in my forthcoming novel Notes from the Internet Apocalypse), but today's column is about other people on the World Wide Web. After a decade knee-deep in e-opinion, this is what the Internet has taught me about the Internet.
There's no doubt I've written some inflammatory things online and been pretty clear about it. I've trashed Green Day, Taylor Swift and people who create gaps in lines. The funny part is, judging by the comments, some of the most insulting things I've ever written weren't even intended to offend.
Part of the problem is that even on a site like Cracked, which runs longer pieces, you only have a finite time to reach a reader. There is a balance between making a point and explaining every conceivable counterpoint. Still, despite my strong opinions, I usually recognize exceptions to every rule and often couple my damnation with qualifying statements. You'd think that would prevent people from getting offended. After all, if you had a choice between reading a sentence in such a way that's personally insulting or believing there was no insult directed at you, who would choose to be offended? Well, the answer is just about everyone.
Hey, guys, great to see you again!
I've written about the value of debating or arguing because, as discussed above, confronting differing opinions usually solidifies your thinking or shows you why you're wrong. Many people avoid that conflict because they're too arrogant to believe someone else could be right. Others avoid it knowing deep down that they don't have the ability to defend their beliefs and don't care to understand them. The thing is, both times I've written about this, I've explained that, of course, arguing with some people isn't worth it. There are loud-mouthed imbeciles who only cast insults and don't debate ideas. But countless people took offense anyway and explained why they don't want confrontations with people who are just loud-mouthed insulting blowhards.
"Well, I'm sure I could interpret that as not applying to me, but then how could I be offended?"
Another time, I wrote a column about terrible college experiences that prepare you for life, like seeing people do bad things without consequences. At one point, I talked about all the women I'd met who'd been date raped. Here's a portion of what I wrote:
"I wish it were only one or two girls at school who had stories about getting date raped, but it seemed like it was at least 25 percent of all women I knew. And in almost none of those cases was there a criminal investigation. That's a lot of rapists walking around in the world, remembering that time they crawled inside that nearly comatose girl with a fond smile."
Yep, that pissed off some dudes. Dudes who wanted to defend the date rapists they knew nothing about. They said the chicks wanted it or the dudes were drunk, too. All I did was describe a date rapist, but they saw someone else, invented other factors, until they had enough information to be offended.
Of course, I've offended some women, too. One of my favorite columns talked about how Sex and the City feminism had led some women to confuse being slutty with being empowered. My point was simply that when it comes to sex, feminism means that women should have the same right as men to be whores. Nevertheless, whores (whether they are male or female) are not particularly admired. Many seemed to understand that there was nothing even vaguely inflammatory about that logic, but several people accused me of "mansplaining" and "slut-shaming." Those people read my words and heard something else: their preacher, father, abusive boyfriend, I don't know. But it wasn't me. My words were merely triggers to memories that shouted, "If you have lots of sex, you're a bad, whorish woman," but those words weren't there.
Pictured above: Not me.
Ernest Hemingway's famous writing advice was to write the truest sentence you know. About a year ago, I achieved that goal. Unfortunately, because I'm not Ernest Hemingway, and because I live in the 21st century, I wasted that sentence on my Twitter:
For context, that was written after Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston died. With their deaths came a flood of tears from the Net. Such a loss. How tragic! Then all the #RIP tweets and Facebook postings. Some shitty poetry and sappy Photoshops canonizing the departed. But where were all these efforts during these artists' lives? How many cheered Winehouse while she sang about rejecting rehab and continued down a destructive path? Where were all the prayers for Whitney's sobriety? Would they have not been more constructive than those postmortem pleas to heaven that she finally be at peace with the Lord?
But that's much harder, right? I mean, to make a big deal out of suffering while it's actually happening requires action. You'd have to do something. Even worse, you'd have to keep doing something until the problem's fixed. Most people don't do that. It's too hard, and that's why I reject the bullshit sentimentality of people who wait for the very end of a tragedy to publicly proclaim their feelings. It's why I raise suspicious eyebrows to saintly comics who take pride in not making "too soon" jokes. I know it feels nice, it looks good, but you get no points for that in this life.
I'm not being holier than thou. I'm no exception. The other day, when crossing the street, I walked past a severely handicapped young man. I heard his tortured speech as he turned to speak to his caregiver, and I was so overcome by his affliction that I started to cry. Right there in the middle of the street. Do you know what I did next? Nothing. Do you know how many charities for the mentally handicapped I've donated to or volunteered at? None. My only contribution was my worthless tears. Look how good I am. I cried. And kept walking. Because it's easiest to cry when you keep walking.
I'm not sure it's fair to blame the Internet for this, because at the end of the day, the Internet, like Soylent Green, is people. So basically, it's people who hate satire. They don't understand it. It confuses them. But I'm including this entry on my list because the Internet is super good at making people's disdain for satire clear.
And cats. The Internet also hates cats. Wait, no. Sorry. The opposite of that.
Sites like McSweeney's and the Onion rely on the Internet to find enough people in the world who appreciate the form to remain successful. But when you throw satire out to the masses, things go badly. I've written two columns about satirists being attacked by people who simply missed the joke, and I've certainly had mixed results when employing satire online.
One of my favorite columns was my defense of gay marriage from the point of view of a married heterosexual who only understood homosexuality from what he saw on TV. In it, I warned the gay community that if gay marriage were legal: 1) they'd have no excuse not to commit; 2) their sex would get less hot; and 3) the niche market for gay men as interior designers would suffer because married people aren't hip. Taken in whole, my objections to gay marriage were so stupid, it made a case for why gay marriage should be legal. That's sort of how satire works sometimes. Plenty of people got it, but lots of feisty folks wanted to know who the hell I was to tell them whether or not they had a right to get married. That was the day I learned that gay people could be just as stupid as heteros.
We're here. We're queer. And some of us are just as stupid as some of you!
And then there was my biggest failure, in which I bemoaned the death of the publishing industry at the hands of social media successes like the book and then sitcom based off the Twitter feed "Shit My Dad Says." Accordingly, I did a timeline about the rise and fall of a Twitter sensation called the Meh-ssiah who only tweeted "meh." About six people read it, and of those six, about four believed that everything I said was true.
It's hard to get too upset about these things anymore. Satire is just like color blindness for some. Eventually, you stop asking those people if your tie matches your suit.
The Internet has no shame for a couple of reasons. The first, everyone knows: The Internet is anonymous. We hide behind avatars and dummy accounts and user names. We can do things in secret and we run amok. That's why people are trolls and bullies. Actions have fewer consequences in the dark, and there's not much more to say about that.
But the Internet also has no shame when it comes to knowledge. In the last decade, the search engine has replaced intelligence to some degree. Somehow, the ability to find the answer to everything has made it acceptable to know nothing. Why take the time to learn facts and hold them in your mind when they can just be retrieved in a Google search box? People pride themselves more on knowing how to look for answers than having them.
Warning. This will crash your results page.
Even with a decade-plus of Internet, I can't get used to that. Maybe it's because I was the youngest of three kids, my brothers seven and 10 years older. When I overheard things I didn't understand, my first instinct was wanting to learn more. To get grounded in the same details so I could participate in the grown-up world going on around me. I was eager to consume, and I was fortunate to have parents who afforded me a chance to speak. The search engine mentality, however, is interested only in acquiring enough information to shut down the conversation. To explain why it's OK not to know.
Or maybe giving everyone equal access to knowledge has made some believe that we are all in equal possession of knowledge. But we're not. People who care about knowing will always have the edge, because they will use the Internet as a tool for more learning, instead of an excuse for indifference. And there is so much indifference online. It's almost hostility toward "excessive" learning. The Internet wants to be told just enough to keep it interested, but not so much that it gets confused or finds out how much there is that it still doesn't know. Just enough information to be repeated. That makes the Internet feel smart. But give it too much and you're being pretentious or pedantic or a hipster, even though that's not really what any of those words mean. But the Internet doesn't care about knowing what words mean, only that there's an app to look them up if it absolutely has to. And it doesn't have to. After all, you don't even know where the Internet lives or what it looks like.
Watch the season finale of HATE BY NUMBERS. Also, be sure to follow Gladstone on Twitter and stay up-to-date on the latest regarding Notes from the Internet Apocalypse. And then there's his website and Tumblr, too.