Historian Oliver Lee Bateman examines one of our most dysfunctional relationships.
I haven’t looked at the stats in a while, but I’m guessing any listicle with more than 50 words is “tl;dr.” With that in mind, let’s get down to business: why is the Internet so awful all the time?
1. Listicles: You’ve gotta start somewhere, so let’s start here. These things have crept up on us because we’re all so crazy busy opening tabs and not paying attention to anything, and now they’re unavoidable. I have a hunch they’re the only things anybody clicks on anymore. If they’re too long–i.e., if they require scrolling or clicking to another page–they’re doomed to failure. Hence the wild succcess of NPR’s pranktastic “Read it? Bro, I haven’t even shared it on Facebook yet!“ prank. But hey, there’s so much to do when you’re working as hard as humanly possible to postpone genuinely significant reading and conversations. According to my well-placed sources, they’ll start awarding Pulitzers for listicles in 2015 (this one will undoubtedly be an early frontrunner).
2. Comments: I never thought I’d find myself longing for the day when Grandma and Grandpa wrote 300-word “Dear so-and-so” letters to the local newspaper in response to articles they’d actually read. Nowadays, comments sections amount to little more than fields in which angry people respond to the article’s title. A post with the hed “What is Wrong With the World Today?” needn’t be opened; a simple five-letter “OBAMA” riposte on the site’s Facebook feed will do. Several types of comments warrant particular notice here: Gawker comments, in which people spend hours trying to out-clever the writers of the original posts (all of whom are working for approximately the same rate of pay); YouTube comments, which should be accompanied by barf bags and diapers; and Thought Catalog, the high concept for which seems to have been “what if we could take the awfulness of Internet comments but feature them as actual articles?”
3. Bill Simmons: Bill Simmons means well, I’m sure. His Grantland webzine began with the best of intentions, even if it’s now little more than Deadspin 2.0 (only @AKATheMaskedMan, Wesley Morris, and Jonathan Abrams rise to the level of appointment reading on there). But what Simmons represents–the fan, the fanboy, the rambling, emotion-driven blogger who type type types away with nary a thought gr8 or small to say–is terrifying. He stands for the proposition that unsourced, un-researched opinions have value, this in spite of the fact that we (especially me!) know for a fact that they don’t. But his opinion still does, because he got there first, and this in turn justifies all kinds of nonsense, including that ludicrous Book of Basketball. “Any extended [sports] analysis which is not based on historical facts or the technique of the game tells more about the writer than what he is writing about,” observed C.L.R. James, and by this measure it is inarguable that no one, not even a frenemy such as fussbudget-y Charlie Pierce, has written more words about Bill Simmons than Simmons himself.
Tim and Eric offer their own CD-ROM based alternative to the Internet: the Innernette.
4. Nate Silver: “Tuhribble, just tuhrrible,” as Charles Barkley would say. Nate Silver, quite possibly the most unctuous and arrogant man this side of Tom Friedman, is never wrong. No, friends, he simply didn’t have enough data or the right data or the newest data or the smoothest data or the most filling data or the crunchiest data to reach the right conclusion. And as for his 538 blog, which follows the “here’s an infographic, here’s a descriptive paragraph about that infographic” model to its logical conclusion, finer minds than mine have challenged its raison d’être. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Silver’s hiring methodology, which consists of hiring white males who look exactly like Nate Silver (srsly–go and check out the unflattering mug shots of 538’s featured columnists!)
4a. Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic/”the critical consensus”: I’m with legendary contrarian Armond White on this: the critical consensus is almost always wrong. The CC isn’t wrong because it’s inaccurate–frequently it’s right on the money when it comes to superficial details such as CGI quality and the attractiveness of Channing Tatum–but because it shapes opinions well before one has had the opportunity to think for himself or herself. I have several critic friends whose reviews may as well just be paraphrases of other reviews (themselves paraphrased or plagiarized from elsewhere, natch)…and what’s the point of that? Godzilla 2014, which is far worse than even the Don Frye-fronted Godzilla 2004, sits at a “fresh” 74% on Rotten Tomatoes, and all I can assume is that a) few critics actually listened to the dialogue or b) few critics actually saw the film. But in an age of aggregators, who needs to see anything? A big-budget film or video game “drops,” gets its inexplicable 85%, and then is never heard from again. Meanwhile, productions like Watchmen or 300, which improve on their pulpy source material, are dismissed as failures within seconds of their release. So it goes.
5: We Have Met The Trolls, and They Are Us: Share anything heartfelt and sincere (e.g., very real sob stories about childhood abuse, late-life trauma, etc.) with a large enough audience and goons will troll your sorry ass. Develop a big enough reputation and thousands will rush to burst your bubble. Given that controversy creates clicks and clicks (at least in theory) create cash, some of our most infamous well-off people do naught besides troll the lowest-hanging fruit. Even this listicle, which aspires futilely to transcend the form, amounts to little besides trolling (not that anyone’s read this far, because hey, tl;dr). The trolling instinct has always been with us–Jesus and Moses had their share of “o rly dude? lawlz” detractors, and Greek philosophy was a fat lot of highbrow trolling–but we now have the technology to deliver up-to-the-second real time trolling, with each new published statement constituting a golden opportunity to deliver the beating of a lifetime to a real or imagined (usually imagined) rival.