14 Aug

Just How Dumb Are We? An Investigation into the Idiocy and Vitriol of Web Comments

It’s a favorite past time of many Americans and, indeed, the world at large, to make fun of how dumb the citizens of this nation are. On any number of late night talk shows, you can see in interviews on the streets how many people don’t know who Hillary Clinton is or can’t tell you how many states are in the United States. Jay Leno does it with his “Jaywalking”segment, and you can bet there are plenty of these sorts of displays of Amercian stupidity abroad, like Australia’s “Chaser Non-stop News Network” (CNNNN), which came to American cities a few years back and seemed to edit out anyone with a high school education or higher. Of course, stupid people are funny; I’m not saying we shouldn’t laugh (“The children are right to laugh at you, Ralph.”). But are people really that dumb?

I admit to writing off the general public as pretty idiotic, citing evidence in the success of Reality TV and the fact that Dubya is our president, just to name a few things. And of course, the internet only furthers my theory. Specifically, those facets of the internet which contain lots of comments. Take one look at a popular YouTube video and you’ll see some top-rate idgets. A typical exchange involves calling someone gay; scolding that person with impassioned, misspelled words; critiquing previous posters’ spelling; some unsolicited preaching about the evils of the Chinese government; a follow-up berating how little Americans know about China and how they should STFU; and finally a mass write-off of all previous commenters as complete and total dumb-asses or maybe fags. All this might be in response to a video of Pokemon.

This cycle of stupidity is so ubiquitous that it provoked a series of skits by collegehumor.com about how ridiculous such a dialogue would be in real life: one, two, three.

What do real life debates have that the internet doesn’t? Moderation.

Two definitions of moderation apply, actually — the first being the avoidance of extremes and the second being an additional party that guides the contributions of those engaged in the debates.

In an organized debate, for instance, a moderator keeps the discussion focused and civil, makes sure that all parties involved have equal opportunity to voice their opinions, decides on and filters questions for the debaters, and can often see with clarity the stalemates that arise in a debate and decide when it’s best to move on to the next topic.

As a high school teacher, I have done plenty of moderating in my classes. Some contributions from students are offensive, not well thought-out, slightly off-topic, and/or approaching personal attacks. My job is to extract the content that forwards the discussion (sometimes with lots of rephrasing) and to squelch those voices that might cause the discussion to descend into chaos.

I notice, though, when I partake in discussions with my colleagues, that, absent a moderator, we still moderate ourselves to a certain extent. If Mrs. Terwilliger suggests making all students speak English in the hallways, I’m not going to tell her that she’s a moron whose ethnocentric notions make me wonder how it is that she ever became a teacher to begin with and I wish she was never born. I may shoot her down forcefully by suggesting that if we lived in France, we would most likely speak English to each other and that we’d have every right to do so, but I would refrain from calling her an infectious hasty-witted boar-pig because — as we all know — when using offensive language, the content of the argument gets lost in the manner of expressing it.

In the above scenario, I’d be utilizing my internal moderator, in this case also known as professionalism. When you have to see the same people every day, it’s nice if you can be civil to each other. It’s more important even than liking each other. Ultimately, though, professionalism stems from two other concepts: accountability and consequence.

Accountability really comes down to the basic human need to be liked. It’s more or less your reputation. Consequence is what happens when you engage in activities that damage your reputation.

The Amateur Internet Sociologist.doc

I don’t go around calling people fools because insults put distance between people. Cunning political leaders know to “keep their friends close but to keep their enemies closer.” When you have to deal with people on a daily basis, your ability to function depends on remaining acceptable to those people.

But online, you don’t have to be acceptable to shit. You can remain anonymous and spew forth glib, inflammatory nonsense (and then walk away from your computer and compliment your coworker on her shoes).

Is there any way for online communities to deal with this? There have been a few attempts. The most popular way is to filter comments. If you have a YouTube account, for instance, you can require comments to be approved before they’re posted, which allows you to screen the liberal use of the word gay and other such ridiculousness.

Where this gets problematic is if you have hundreds of comments, which would then get tedious to police.

That’s probably why YouTube has implemented another filter: comment ratings. Now, commenters on any random YouTube video can rate their fellow commenters with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. The comment then has a +1 in green or a -1 in red displayed next to it, depending on what variety of thumb it received. If the comment reaches a -5 rating, it is hidden and you have to click “Show”to read it.

Ironically, this system of comment rating allows the idiots who debate YouTube videos to just further berate each other, which is what they live for anyway, so I’m not sure it actually enhances the discussion.

If you can’t enhance the discussion, maybe you should just eliminate it. That’s what This American Life did with their website after airing a story about a family that unraveled. The synopsis: “Debra Gwartney loved her two oldest daughters like she loved herself. And they loved her in return. But Debra got a divorce, moved the family to Oregon, and relations with her daughters got worse and worse. Finally, at the ages of thirteen and fourteen, they ran away.”

Apparently, people started leaving comments about the two daughters, calling them whores, sluts and other terrible names. Ira Glass chimed in to tell commenters that these two teenaged girls were real people and that they were reading the site. “These are teenaged girls who are [hearing] what you’re saying,”he explained. “Please act like they’re in the room and you’re saying something to them.” But things didn’t get any better. So they pulled the plug on the comments. Not the most democratic thing to do, but given the context, I fully support the decision.

Ultimately, there’s no question that moderation is needed. But what’s the difference between moderation and censorship? What if your moderator is him/herself an idiot? As soon as you put a filter on things, you get a distorted picture, no?

The masses are most certainly to blame for this dilemma — after all, it is they who are so full of stupidity and vitriol. But might the masses also be the solution? Consider why YouTube has made any changes to its comments sections at all. In the past year or two, their reputation has started to become damaging to business. With sites like Vimeo and Flickr providing higher quality video and less inflammatory commenting, would-be YouTube users are starting to move toward sites with a smaller dumbness ratio.

Though CNNNN and Jay Leno do an effective job of exposing our widespread buffoonery, there are others who posit that a random walk through the byways of America might actually illuminate insight and intelligence. The site Mob Logic TV takes to the streets with questions about current events and exposes a surprisingly knowledgeable citizenry.

James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds investigates how “collections of independently deciding individuals”can best even experts with their decisions. The book opens with an anecdote in which a “crowd at a county fair accurately guessed the weight of an ox when their individual guesses were averaged,”beating out cattle experts’ estimates.

So maybe there’s some hidden intelligence in us after all.

The problem, though, comes in how we extract that intelligence. It’s like squeezing the juice from a lemon. Because I’m not so smart, I always get plenty of seeds falling onto my salmon and asparagus, let’s say, thereby sullying what promises to be a wonderful meal. But as I recently discovered at a pseudo-fancy wedding, there are lemon-specific elastic cheesecloths (they look like little hairnets) that, when placed over the half-lemon, can result in a seedless extract. Wow.

Right now, our nation tends not to use such clever culinary techniques when it comes to our discourse. And so we end up with heated conflict (a seedy mess) rather than civil discourse (a taste sensation). There are examples aplenty of how we’ve gone wrong on TV. Bill O’Reilly comes to mind. Really anything on FOX. But the problem extends far beyond the straw man of the FOX network to most mainstream media outlets.

Heated conflicts involving personal hurt are, if not good television, at least spectacular television. And the problem with the internet is that it’s somewhere between television and real life. I think people leave dumb comments because, in addition to having no accountability or consequence, they’re unsure of the purpose of the site they’re visiting, or — maybe this is a stretch — of the entire internet. Is it entertainment? Is it information? Is it a resource? Is it a destination? Is it a democracy? Is it an aristocracy?

Nobody really knows. But lacking accountability and consequence, the internet is probably not going to improve much unless various checks and balance like those mentioned above are put into place. And even then, there will still be enclaves of cyberspace that are just downright mean.

We’ve all heard of the horror stories that have unraveled on MySpace and Facebook. Frontline’s documentary Growing Up Online tells the story of Ryan Halligan, who was cyberbullied and encouraged to kill himself — which he did in October of 2003. More recently, Lori Drew posed as a 16 year-old boy named Josh and fooled her daughter’s former friend Megan Meier into believing that “Josh”was sincere in his declarations of love. When Josh dumped her, though, Megan committed suicide.

What’s most alarming about the Lori Drew story is that she was not a teen herself. Usually, the people guilty of this variety of stupid are pre-teens and adolescents. It’s not so much stupidity as it is immaturity.

Metaphorically, perhaps we’re all adolescents on the internet. As Ira Glass points out, the media model for centuries has been one-way communication. We haven’t quite figured out how we are to communicate on the web, this bastion of two-way interaction.

Of course, it’s not binary. I realize that. Nor are the borders well defined. And that’s part of what makes the Internet so wonderful. But I suppose the cost of such boundlessness is a little bit of ugly.

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