We need to have a talk. Yeah, you. Go ahead and sit down. I won’t take up much of your time, I promise.

I want to talk with you about pretentiousness and the Internet. If you don’t know what I mean, spend some time reading Reddit, Imgur, or anything else with comments. Hell, Youtube might even work. Actually, scratch that. Youtube comments degraded long ago into a cesspool of assholery punctuated by insults and downvote wars. In some ways, I suppose it’s not all that dissimilar to Reddit if it weren’t for the dramatically lower IQ. I’d guess the average Redditor is about 2 or 3 years out from devolving into the bottomfeeders that inhabit Youtube.

We need to stop this trend.

The problem is that it’s more and more difficult to have a great discussion without some pretentious twit jumping in and peeing in the pool. If you’re really lucky, they’ll save their “number two” exclusively for those really sticky conversations that get lots of attention. But it gets even worse if we’re talking about politics or religion. We’re not just asking little Johnny if he needs to go “number one” or “number two.” No, sir. You know those trucks they use to pump out grease pits and septic tanks? Split one of those open and you’ll get an idea of the wretched stench that erupts every time you get into one of those arguments. The same tired rubbish wafts about like last night’s dinner. And the night before. And the night before that. Culminated into a decade’s worth of forgotten meals, these stale half-digested arguments regurgitated ad nauseum start to wear down even the most seasoned of us.

Let’s start with some of the more prominent examples in no particular order:

  • You do realize that [obvious fact or circumstance in question that no one is actually questioning, usually portending a lecture on common knowledge], right?
  • Actually, [obnoxious dissenting opinion, often conflating the topic under debate with an item of marginal importance, vague reductionism, or something entirely unrelated].
  • Well, [statement of disagreement, often built upon a tenuous foundation overlooking the precipice of confusion].
  • I think you’re a poop-smuggling shunt wagon.

Here’s an illustration. Let’s say we’re talking about democracy at it applies to the United States. Invariably, someone with a great deal of misplaced passion blurts out the statement “You do realize that a US is a republic and not a democracy, right?”

Well, of course it’s a republic, you knucklehead. Chances are quite good that most of the people participating in the debate know that. Chances are even better that they’re sick and tired of some nitwit bringing it up for the umpteenth time. Trust me, you may think you’re being clever. You may even think you’re being helpful. In all likelihood, you’re neither. The Internet is a very different place than it was five years ago. Ten, even. If your helpful fact is something that can be discovered in five seconds on Google, it’s not as helpful as you think it is.

The issue isn’t with the facts per se. The issue is with how they’re delivered. Remember, text communications is sorely lacking emotion, inflection, and tone. There’s no body language. There are no verbal cues. Nothing. Nada. The human brain is a marvelous interpolation device that freely collects sometimes superfluous information in an attempt to “fill in the blanks,” as it were. So, with textual speech, any little cue that might give the reader some insight into the author’s emotional state is eaten up by the sponge between your ears.

Normally, this isn’t a bad thing. But the Internet is anything but normal. Humans (and human culture) evolved with a significant dependence on all sorts of stupid things to gather information crucial to our survival back before the days of computers, electricity, and even modern agriculture. That’s why your mother could tell you were being dishonest when you were staring at the ground, shifting your weight uncomfortably from leg to leg while the husk of a broken vase rattled behind you. That’s why our early ancestors could tell they were in deep kimchi when a gaggle of big hairy dudes with spears camped outside their cave makin’ a whole lot of ruckus. It’s body language like that which communicates a great deal of information without speech.

Contrast this with text. The written word is information dense but this density comes at a cost. Without creatively interjecting inflections and emphasis with that little voice in your head every time you see italic or bold print, text is bland and one dimensional. There’s little color to it and it reads like a stream of data. It takes skill to transmit something more than information. Sometimes emphasis is necessary, but sometimes just the right combination of words does the trick. It’s why the best authors are able to bring incredibly vibrant worlds to life in that squishy mass behind your eyeballs with little more than ink on a page. They know how to get your imagination fired up.

However, I’m going to keep my example simple (I’m a simple man) and stick with emphasis, because it’s easier to illustrate what I’m getting at.

Let’s take the sentence “I was very busy today.” It conveys an abstract idea–being busy–across a certain slice of time, presumably all day. But what if we add inflection? Take a look at these two sentences:

  • I was very busy today.
  • I was very busy today.

I’ll let the little narrative voice in your head process that for a minute. Take your time.

What was your conclusion? Well, in all likelihood, when you read the first sentence, the little voice in your head conveyed an image of someone who was swamped with all sorts of work. You’ve probably even had days like that. Paperwork piled to the ceiling with no hope other than the clock on the wall ticking away your misery. Don’t focus on it too hard, though, or it’ll just make the hours creep by like years.

However, when you read the second sentence, I suspect the image you had in mind was a fair bit different. Maybe it was something like “Well, I was busy, but then I kept getting interrupted.” It’s the dismal sort of hopeless resignation that happens when the phone incessantly rings every time you pick up a pen. Won’t they give me a moment’s peace?

See? Tone, inflection, and emphasis all play important parts, even in text. The trick is to use them correctly.

When someone offers a correction with an air of pretentiousness, this whole mess gets a little short-circuited and your brain stops reading the text as mere data and adds its own inflections and emotion. Maybe it gets construed as condescending or downright rude. In some cases, it might even be taken as an insult (depending on the audience). What’s more, sometimes the people correcting everyone else actually get upset when someone responds to them like they’re being pretentious! It’s almost comical, really, when someone repeatedly comes off sounding like a Giant Walking Male Organ and they get blasted for it. Couldn’t happen to a nicer person.

I promise we’re almost done, so I’ll conclude this with what you can do to help. Don’t worry, I screw this up all the time. Sometimes I come off distant and emotionless. Sometimes I come off as a pretentious you-know-what. It’s okay, though, because awareness is half the battle. Err, I guess the saying doesn’t quite go like that, but you get the point. As long as you’re aware of these things and put forth a conscious effort to improve, the benefit is a net gain for us all.

First, if you see a comment that is either very unspecific or half-right (half-wrong for you pessimists), it can’t hurt to ask for clarification. The more information you have, the more you understand the other person’s intent. Perhaps they have a very particular idea in mind and didn’t consider their previous statements might be misconstrued to mean something else. Perhaps they simply don’t know the full story. Or, maybe they do know the full story, but they’re trying to simplify it in order to keep the conversation from turning into a meandering stream that gets nowhere fast. Which brings me to another point.

If you’re going to nitpick, second of all, at least do it in context (this one really gets under my skin). There’s nothing more irritating than someone who thinks he’s being really cute picking on one relatively tiny detail and taking it completely out of context. It doesn’t add to a conversation when someone hones in on that sort of insignificant minutiae as an argumentative “gotcha!” It’s basically like taking a magnifying glass to an essay and taking points off for getting ink a few thousandths of an inch outside the margins. I’m sure we’ve all had at least one teacher like that. Don’t do it. If you must counter an argument, it’s better to do so with facts. If you’re not sure what the opposing party means by something they wrote, re-read the paragraph above. Asking for a little clarification can substantially improve the quality of a debate.

Thirdly, and finally, because this is already a lengthier dissertation than I wanted it to be, if you have to correct someone, please do it politely. Take time to formulate your response. You don’t need to worry about getting there first. It doesn’t matter anyway, because if someone already beat you to the punch, the odds are pretty good that they were being terse and unhelpful. Or they were trying to be funny and wound up derailing the entire conversation. Here’s an example (suggested response is last):

Person one: The United States is a democracy.
Person two: You do realize that the United States is a republic, right?
You: You’re both correct. The United States is a constitutional republic and representative democracy, so it shares the attributes of both a democracy and a republic. This is why US citizens vote directly for their representatives who then in turn cast their vote on matters of governance. This is also why US citizens do not vote directly on such issues.

See? Wasn’t that beautiful!

If you’re thinking “Golly, that’s a lot of work. I don’t want to do that!” then perhaps you should direct your energy instead to questioning whether or not your contribution to the discussion would be worthwhile. Are you actually providing an informative, helpful response? Or are you writing a terse one-liner just so you can stick it to someone else and demonstrate how smart you are? Smart comments generally take a great deal of effort and time to write. Smartass comments take mere seconds.

Before I go, I’ll leave you with a bonus.

Whenever you find yourself in a heated exchange, the best course of action is to take a few steps back and think about the situation. Never (and I repeat, never) write an immediate response. You’ll sound like a jerk, and the debate will leave everyone angry, frustrated, annoyed, and hurt. If an exchange starts to get a little sour, take a moment to reflect and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I really understand what the other party is getting at?
  • Can I see the argument from their angle?
  • Do I feel that the other side is being fair or are they angry?
  • Do I feel like I’m being fair or am I angry?

If you simply cannot bring yourself to an understanding with the opposing faction no matter how hard you try, perhaps it’s better to agree to disagree. Maybe your differences are too dramatic and you’re unlikely to reach common ground. This is especially true when discussing matters of political or religious interests. In those cases, it’s better to cut your losses early than it is to get angry. You’re unlikely to convince anyone who disagrees with you. Likewise, don’t resort to insulting someone whose beliefs don’t match your own. It doesn’t matter how stupid you think they are, either. Unless you know how old that person is, they’ve probably spent tens of years formulating their opinions on the matter and using cutesy little phrases like “sky wizard” is just going to piss someone off.

On the other hand, if you do feel angry or you feel the other side is arguing in anger, sensible debate has already left the stadium. There’s no telling where you’re headed next. That feeling should be the first sign the debate is becoming emotionally entrenched. Emotional investment is the antithesis of reasoned arguments and it’s a signal that it’s time to step back. If you need to continue the debate (perhaps it’s a technical matter that needs resolution) and you’re debating on a medium that lends itself well to asynchronous responses (like mailing lists), step away and come back tomorrow. It can wait. If you really can’t leave anyone hanging, simply make a short statement indicating that you need some time to think about the situation. Tell them you’ll write a reply in the morning. Sleep is an amazing remedy, and sometimes you’ll find that after a good night’s sleep, whatever rustled your jimmies in the first place seems fairly trivial.

See? It’s easy. I’m glad we had this talk.

Oh, one more thing before you go. Don’t bother with Youtube comments. It’s like that old adage: Arguing on the Internet is like wrestling with pigs. You’ll both get dirty, but the pig likes it.