Back in the day, I used to participate in message boards on AOL. We discussed history, politics, and whatnot. It was fun, you got to talk about your hobbies to people who actually cared, spar a bit over points of disagreement, and even occasionally become friends (or, indeed, enemies) of a sort with the other participants. Some list-serves – the kind that came to your e-mail box – followed. But my participation in such discussions fell off rapidly in graduate school, where there always seemed to be real people to argue with.
Nowadays, nearly every page on the Internet has a message board affixed to it, and some – like Facebook – are basically nothing but. Make no mistake: these boards do not exist in order to democratize the media or any of that nonsense. They exist to generate page views, information about viewership that can then be sold to potential advertisers. Over time, I found myself drawn to reading the comments in a "can’t look at it, can’t look away" sort of manner. Sometimes I even posted a comment of my own, and then felt like taking a shower afterwards. And so I decided to conduct an experiment. For about a year I partook in discussions on a variety of different pages. I posted, in all, six or seven hundred times (rarely more than twenty or thirty words at a time) and probably read ten times that number of posts. My intent: report my findings on Measure of Doubt when I eventually revived it.
I approached this with some rules. First, I’d use my real name, not a pseudonym. Second, I would never lie. Third, I would mainly respond by pointing out errors of fact and/or argumentative errors in the articles on which I was commenting and/or in the posts of others. Fourth, I would never resort to name calling or ad hominem of any kind. (Only once, near the end, did I break this rule. A poster suggested that he didn’t care if texting while driving endangered others – it’s a free country and he ought to be allowed to do it. I replied that we needn’t be worried in his case, as one needed friends in order to have anyone to send texts to in the first place. He replied, predictably, that he would be texting my mom. I said that, in that case, he ought to be careful, as texting on a flip-phone was hard enough, let alone while driving a late-model Datsun and when spelling isn’t your forte. Ding, ding, ding: and the winnah by knockout...) Fifth, I decided that my natural tone would be ironic. The Rob Ford business gave me both motive and opportunity to really sharpen these skills, which had grown quite dull and rusty sheathed in their scabbard since about 2005. Sixth, when participating in a discussion that lasted more than three exchanges back-and-forth (and on some boards, like CNN, the messages poured in so fast – literally dozens would arrive every second on big stories – that no “discussion” was possible at all) I would always thank my interlocutor for chatting, no matter how badly it went.
After a few months of participating on various boards, I reached certain conclusions, some of which I believe, and some of which (marked with an *) other people believe. Here they are, in order.
1) Humanity is doomed. I have no words to describe how totally, viciously, and horrifically boned we are as a species. My odds-on favourite for possible outcomes at the moment is some sort of global nuclear holocaust resulting from environmental catastrophe, followed by the total collapse of civilization. The survivors on the political right will turn to cannibalism and burn the contents of our libraries and museums in a forlorn attempt to stave off freezing to death in the nuclear winter. The survivors from the political left will say that civilization had it coming anyway and talk about the need for solidarity. Then they’ll get baked, try to (finally) make it past page five in Das Kapital, and plan for some sort of direct action tomorrow.
2) People are horrible. They are ill-informed, irrational, bigoted, tribal, tasteless, tactless, petty, self-interested, self-absorbed, and just plain mean. No part of the political spectrum has a monopoly on stupid; civility accrues nothing in your favour. My grandmother was right: people are garbage. Stay away from them.
3) No one works hard except for the person currently posting.* Everyone else is overpaid, underworked, and suckling at the bosom of the nanny state. Especially teachers. In addition, no one knows how to drive properly except for the person currently posting.
4) I have it on good authority that if it’s cold right now where you live, global warming is a hoax.
5) People who begin a sentence with a phrase such as “I’m not a racist, but...” are always racists. There are a lot of them.
6) Arguing with a Creationist about evolution is like arguing with a Big Mac about vegetarianism. Too. Far. Gone.
7) Bush is Hitler.*
8) Obama is also Hitler.*
9) Stephen Harper is worse than Hitler.*
10) The only political leader ever who is not Hitler is Hitler. Mention Hitler anywhere and hordes will rush to his defense.
11) But they’re “not racist.” They just want "white pride."*
12) Countries that aren’t the United States are permitted to kill, torture, and generally knock about pretty much anybody they want. Everybody gets a free pass because of what the United States did in Vietnam, to the natives, and because of slavery. Slow clap.*
13) Things used to be great. But now we have lost our values because of either a) immigrants or b) big corporations. Or both.*
14) Jesus is coming back soon. We’re not kidding this time.*
15) There is a cure for cancer, but they aren’t telling you what it is.*
16) There is also a cure for obesity, and the person posting knows what it is.*
17) Everything everywhere has been cured but they don’t want you to know.*
18) Educated people don’t know anything about the “real world.” They “can’t see the forest for the trees.”* People who make this argument often have difficulty distinguishing between “your” and “you’re” and “it’s” and “its”.
19) Misogyny is real. For proof, read the message boards on IMDB where they discuss Sex and the City and Girls.
20) The moderators of any particular message board are trying to silence at least one of the people currently posting, usually because the person they’re trying to silence is the only one exposing their lies.* Such statements are often accompanied by metaphors about emperors not having any clothes on.
21) Nobody hates Star Trek more than Star Trek fans. The principal holds true for obsessive fans of everything from other science fiction franchises to sports teams.
22) Except for Ayn Rand fans. Ayn Rand fans are the most rabidly indoctrinated sociopaths in recent history, with the possible exception of parents who rioted to get Cabbage Patch dolls for their children. They are probably the same people, I suspect.
24) Humanity is doomed. Mainly because of Ayn Rand fans.