Fair warning: This post might be considered inflammatory. Reader discretion advised.

One of the many things that puzzles me about progressives is their almost pathological obsession with past wrongs. Here I thought “progress” was primarily a forward-thinking activity! Granted, I’m sure progressives would strongly suggest that obsessing over wrongdoings of yesteryear is forward-thinking, but I’ll conveniently ignore how stupidly brain damaged that sounds, especially when repeated by grown adults. But hey, different strokes for different folks. It’s kinda like someone with a substance abuse problem. I can quit any time I like, [puffs heavily], I just don’t want to right now!

I won’t go into details, mostly because anyone who does oppose the progressive engine of regressive tendencies is labeled anything from racist to sexist, but I primarily want to focus on something that’s been gnawing at me for a while. I’m not sure what it is, but the tech community has an exceptionally, well, bizarre obsession with driving more women into technology jobs because of some perceived social (or numerical?) inequality. Whenever the subject arises, it imposes itself immediately in the form of dozens of men stumbling over each other just to demonstrate how feminist they are. Look at me! I want college courses in technology to be 95% more women. That’s 5% more than this other dude! The discussion swiftly degrades into name-calling and insults. Legitimate discourse is caught in the crossfire and ultimately left to bleed to death on the field.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. Most of us dudes in technology aren’t exactly the sort who attract women in droves, so resorting to other tactics to gain affection or attention probably seems to be a viable alternative. Unfortunately for those creepers, I suspect that the majority of career-oriented women are above such immature nonsense and find this sort of sniveling pseudo-feminism pushed on them by the opposite sex repulsive. Surely it’s annoying, because women who are seeking access to a specific field or industry would rather be treated as equals than to be sniffed out and fawned over like some sort of rare fruit. People in general don’t like being singled out. Ideally, this means that equal treatment is equal treatment. Of course, suggesting equal treatment for everyone is taken, paradoxically, to mean something else entirely and riles up the feminists for whatever reason. I’ll never understand.

Speaking of which, if one dares to suggest something as progressive as letting women pick the career fields they’re interested in, it’s taken as a slight to the feminist movement. Obviously, the underlying suggestion is that you don’t want women in technology! This contortionism is why we can’t have nice things. Whenever emotion becomes the primary driver of debate, the ability to rationally process benign statements is entirely lost. It’s depressing.

I’m going to take a moment to derail the discussion by channeling Freud here, because I think it deserves to be said. I’m sure some of you are thinking the same thing so I’ll confess first: The thought that immediately enters my mind when I see men acting so stupidly is that it must be sexually motivated, at least in part. I can’t prove it, certainly when the immediate retort is that it isn’t about getting laid. It does give one pause for thought. To pretend that giving a substantial amount of attention (possibly unwanted) to the opposite sex is entirely platonic and altruistic seems implausible, especially when such attention becomes so obvious that it even has its own label: white knighting.

Therefore, biological motivators are likely influential–at least partially–when the individuals in question are in their early to middle 20s. Think about it. That’s when most people get married, screw, and have kids.

So, when you consider for a moment how the political, social, and economic landscape has changed in the last couple of decades, and observe that the relative intrinsic value of the male sex has diminished, it should be obvious that a woman need not seek out male companionship except for her own amusement, love interests, or to start a family. Even then, she doesn’t really need a guy present in her life if she wants children (“friends with benefits,” sperm banks, et cetera). Men, in modern society, aren’t really useful for much. Sorry guys, but it’s true–think about it. Maybe we’re good for a laugh here and there, but by and large, the only tangible benefits men bring to the table is to provide the seed to sow for cultivating parasitic growths wonderful children. Women, by comparison, still bear the children, but they now hold obligations that were once male-dominated exclusively male. If this trend continues, it’ll be interesting to see how sexual dimorphism in humans changes in the next 10,000 years. Remember, in the kingdom of invertebrates (specifically insects and spiders), the female is usually bigger and badder than the male. Sometimes she also eats him. Tasty!

It makes you wonder a bit about the message we’re sending when we give away cooking utensils or knives as wedding gifts, doesn’t it?

Back to contemporary modern society: It isn’t a bad thing that we’ve sufficiently progressed to a point that women and men are nearly functional equals. Sure, there’s still sexism here and there, especially in the third world, but in the developed world, it’s not quite the same. Do we have work to do? Certainly, but not nearly as much as some seem to believe. The alarmist pulpit-pounding that laments of a “war on women” makes for good campaign slogans, but it isn’t exactly reflective of reality unless your reality is comprised of the perpetual fear that George W. Bush is lurking in your closet to go through your underthings and throw away your contraceptives when you’re not looking. The fact we’re worrying ourselves sick about reproductive rights when women in other parts of the world are still subjected to female genital mutilation should encourage us to give thanks for being born into a free society.

But equal treatment isn’t enough for some.

The common charge in the tech world is that there simply isn’t enough women in the field. When pressed, the argument vacillates between gender inequality and sexism, or the notion that such unequal representation is an artifact of the Victorian age, stubbornly held on to by rich, white males. It’s an impossible charge to argue against, because the only evidence needed to “win” is the fact that such unequal representation exists; in other words, it exists, therefore it is true. Last year’s PyCon incident doesn’t help, either.

Unfortunately, the very fact that off-color, potentially offensive jokes can trigger everything from death threats to DDoS attacks is more telling about our society at large than it is about the relative success of feminism. I agree that it’s important to be mindful of one’s surroundings when discussion potentially offensive material (unless you’re a comedian), but the whole thing erupted into a mud-flinging contest of such proportion that it nearly drowned everyone involved. Whatever sanity could have been salvaged in the early hours of the dispute was lost the instant both parties decided to continue the escalation to DEFCON one status. What have we come to?

I return again to declining value of the male sex in our society as a theory that potentially explains this phenomenon. Attention seeking behavior, particularly the kind motivated by sexual urges, can be presented with such urgency that little consideration is given to collateral damage. While it’s far more apparent in the animal kingdom where potential suitors will occasionally fight to the death for a female, it’s curious to me that we humans are arrogant enough to believe we’re immune to instinct and biological pressures. I don’t think we are, and I believe that’s at least part of what motivates some of the ridiculous behavior that occurs in various spheres of influence.

I just finished reading a blog post, for example, written by a fellow who claims he retweets only posts that originated from women. I’m sure he feels it’s entirely altruistic, and maybe it is, but one can’t help but wonder. I can’t imagine the research effort required to pull off such a feat. I never give a second thought to the sex of the person behind Twitter accounts I follow because 1) I don’t care and 2) the content is what’s important. More power to you if you want to go through the effort of filtering out your Twitter contacts based on sex.

(Aside: I also don’t bother retwitting or whatever it is you do on Twitter, because it takes effort and I’m simply not that engaged. Maybe if I used Twitter more…)

Going back to the question of women in technology, or the relative lack thereof, requires much more consideration than most people are willing to invest. Just off the top of my head, I can come up with a few questions necessary for deeper analysis: Is it really a problem? If the answer is yes, then we need to examine why we feel it is a problem. What kind of a problem is it? Is it an imposition on women’s economic status, or does it impair their ability to participate in an important industry? What is the percentage of the female population that actively wants to participate more deeply in technology? Furthermore, we need to answer the questions: 1) Is it a problem strictly because we see it as a statistical imbalance, 2) is it a problem due to supposedly prevalent harassment or discrimination, 3) is it a problem endemic to (and therefore a failure of) our educational system that is putting selective pressure on women to go into other fields? What might happen to those industries that are female-dominated if we attempt to reverse this trend and will they be negatively impacted from our meddling?

The puzzling thing about the latter question is that progressives, when confronted with the evidence that some industries–namely nursing, medicine, and teaching–are female-dominated, often by a substantial margin, sidestep the issue or return to their fallback obsession of righting past wrongs by placing the blame on gender bias, discrimination, and inequality. It seems strange to suggest that women’s incredible success in the medical industry, both in terms of achievements earned by women and by the shear number of individual participants, is the fault gender inequality. There are tons of brilliant and gifted women out there (my girlfriend is one of them), and I suspect it would take an inordinate amount of work to find one of them who subscribes to the philosophy that their success is entirely thanks to mistreatment by the opposite sex.

The answer, then, regarding women in technology isn’t as simple as some of the pseudo-feminist progressive males seem to suggest. Granted, if the matter is simply an issue of harassment, discrimination, or bias (#2, above), then we have a severe, potentially systemic problem in the tech industry with accepting participants based exclusively on their sex. I’m not sure I’m convinced this true considering the countless numbers self-described feminist males who are begging for increased female participation and make their cause known every chance they get. Yes, I realize it only takes one or two bad apples to spoil it for the lot, but I think women generally have thicker skin than their male counterparts (and their pain tolerance is, on average, significantly higher, too). In a way, it’s almost comical: Women in technology tend to be more pragmatic and less emotional than some of their male peers! Take that you tired, old stereotype!

Considering the issues we’ve outlined above, if the problem is a matter of statistical imbalance (#1) or educational deficiencies (#3), then the solution isn’t as “simple” as reworking the industry in such a manner as to discourage discrimination, harassment, and unwanted behavior. The problem instead becomes something that’s much more difficult to quantify. Worse, we’d be doing a disservice to ourselves and affected individuals if we focus exclusively on a single industry that exhibits such imbalance. If the desirable solution is to promote an understanding of gender inequality, we need to study female-dominated industries, learn of the reasons for their success and, hopefully, discover why male intrusion is almost entirely absent. It’s perplexing to me that the crux of the focus on gender inequality falls squarely on the technology sector while other industries are ignored. Why do we overlook the medical industry, or education, both of which trend toward majority-female participation? What about vocational studies, like mechanical work and other labor intensive industries, that are male-dominated? If the objective is institute gender equality, we need to be examining the situation in every sector. Failure to do so will only limit our capacity to fully understand the scope of the problem, and it will impair our ability to formulate a solution.

No, I’m not being sarcastic, either. This is an honest observation. What you do for one, you do for all. That’s the definition of equality, is it not?

The other side of the coin presents us with a minor elephant-in-the-room conundrum that I’ve only seen mentioned once or twice (ironically by women, not men). If we do successfully funnel more women into technology, the increased numbers will invariably necessitate a decrease elsewhere. If, for the sake of argument, we increase female enrollment in technology by 10%, what will we do if we simultaneously decrease female enrollment in medicine? Will male enrollment make up for it? What damage might we do if we completely screw up and channel women into fields they’re not especially interested in but choose to participate simply on the merit that the scholarship guarantee is more likely? What harm might we bring to industries, like medicine, if we encourage schools to push students into other fields based simply on their sex? Precisely how dependent is an industry, like medicine, on women, and would reducing their number negatively affect advancement in these fields?

I think these are important questions that need further study to analyze what impact we might have if our solutions aren’t optimal. Obviously, scholastic rewards (scholarships, etc.) are one tactic to entice more women into traditionally non-female fields. But the side effect is that it might potentially siphon talented individuals from fields for which their skills and passions are better suited. Worse, a substantial percentage of college freshmen seldom have any idea what field they want to enter. We must be cautious about the directives we feed impressionable young minds. It’s equally as important that we keep as many doors open to success as possible, but we don’t want to prematurely shut a door simply on the merit that too many women have already gone through it. The suggestion alone seems sexist in its own right.

Another consideration is that the problem might be self-limiting. In the coming years, first time students entering college won’t remember a time before the Internet because they were born well after its inception. In the coming decades, first time students won’t even remember a time without social networking, smart phones, and ubiquitous technology. Remember, it wasn’t all that long ago when programming computers (much less knowing how to use one) was considered a fringe activity. Only nerds used computers all the time. Recalling my own experience in high school, girls were largely discouraged either by social pressures, by their peers, or by their parents from associating with nerds or activities that were deemed “too nerdy.” Although many of the top students in my classes in math and science were girls, few of them considered computer science as a viable activity, possibly because of the social stigma. As that stigma evaporates, the social pressures pushing girls away from computer-related activities will also vanish.

I’m well aware that this doesn’t explain why nerdy activities were acceptable for young men and not women. It’s plausible (and very likely) that it’s the fault of nurture over nature. Or, perhaps pimple-faced young men congregating en masse around a computer screen acts as an effective filter, turning away young women from an industry they see as populated by gross, unkempt, dirty future-neckbeards. Hey, you laugh at me for saying this, but when I was in high school, those of us who were not genetically fortunate enough to be blessed with clear skin were often social outcasts whom girls would seldom speak to, much less socialize with! Whatever activities we participated in were therefore further dominated by majority pimple-faced dudes. Girl repellent, if you will. (It also worked rather effectively against jocks, I might add, but that’s out of the scope of this article.)

Bringing us back full circle to progressive pseudo-feminism, we’ve examined many potential problems facing women in technology, possible solutions, and contributing factors that may or may not influence a girl’s interest in participating in technology. Making idiotic statements subjecting otherwise innocent bystanders to such nonsense as tweeting “only” female twitterers or fawning rather embarrassingly over a handful of ladies whose only interest is to write good code isn’t driving the engine of progress forward. Remembering history so as to avoid repeating it (glass ceilings, sexual discrimination, etc.) is a good thing, but obsessing over historic wrongdoing to such an extent that we ignore current success is damaging to us all. The progressive notion that not actively fighting against sexism makes you sexist is foolish. It’s a fun catchphrase for those who have difficulty motivating themselves to do good in the world, I’m sure, but it’s unnecessarily vitriolic language that serves to alienate the very people whose help you need to achieve the goal of equality. Modern progressivism is almost entirely driven by alienation and that’s a problem. It works well at the polling booth by serving to further deepen the political divide.

Consider this as my parting gift: If equality is what you desire, shouldn’t you be treating everyone as equal? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I’ve seen it suggested that true understanding can only be achieved when men are treated as women were hundreds of years ago, as property, but is subjecting others to the same wrongs your ancestors were really progress? Sometimes I wonder if the intent is to impose equal suffering rather than opportunity.

It’s no surprise that viral news or videos are often the subject of a great deal of alarmism. Better still, the more frightening something appears, the more viral it becomes. Such is the case of a particular Delta Airlines flight landing in turbulent conditions in a crosswind. While it’s not the worst such landing I’ve seen, it was certainly rough! Apparently it was sufficiently unusual that several news outlets have taken to reporting it as a terrifying experience for the passengers on board that aircraft. Clearly, something must be done about this infraction on basic rights! (Aside: In an age of the nanny state, I’m actually surprised no one has suggested as much.)

Let’s be serious for a moment. I have no doubt it was uncomfortable for the passengers, but the plane landed, the people survived, and (presumably) the aircraft took off again shortly thereafter.

Oh, one more thing. I’d also recommend against reading the Youtube comments. It’ll rot your brain. I suspect you already know this.

To continue: I’m no aviation specialist nor am I an expert on such matters, but I don’t think you need to be an expert in order to make observations that should (hopefully) be apparent to the casual observer. First, while the landing was rough, it did not cause the tires to burst. In nearly every circumstance where an aircraft has landed with sufficient force to damage the airframe, the tires on the main gear invariably rupture. Or, in particularly forceful landings, the gear detaches entirely (Asiana Flight 214 and British Airways Flight 38 come to mind). The fact the tires and the gear remained intact indicates that the landing was probably well within the aircraft’s design limits. Second, unlike far more hazardous landings, no other part of the aircraft came into contact with the runway. But hey, we shouldn’t let facts get in the way of a good story.

For a moment, let’s appreciate an old-fashioned activity and revisit some facts for a moment. You might have imagined that unwarranted contact with the runway surface in an aircraft is a Bad Thing that pilots try to avoid. It is–so much so that it has been a contributing factor to a number of accidents including the one that caused JAL Flight 123 to break up in midair. Tail strikes, wing strikes, and so forth can all damage the aircraft sufficiently to render it unsafe, and any landing that avoids such circumstance is a good one.

Of course, the old pilot’s proverb any landing you can walk away from is a good one probably applies here, but it’s considerably better if the aircraft is reusable. They are rather expensive.

In the case of our viral subject, I originally saw it linked in a tweet Monday from TheBlaze. I guess it was a slow news day. Still, regardless of the motivation for posting it, suggesting that the landing itself was some sort of on-the-brink near-death experience is laughable. Crosswind landings in heavy turbulence are indeed hazardous, but don’t embellish so much! Not that I’m overly surprised–kneejerk, alarmist headlines drive traffic.

I’d suggest it’s bad journalism, but the consideration here is that reporting of this sort is so common that we cannot simply consider this an isolated incident. It’s endemic to the entire industry. Viral alarmism is bad enough, because it spreads with enough momentum to frighten a large population in a short amount of time. But journalistic alarmism is substantially worse, because–rightly or wrongly–people place a great deal of trust in the machine of journalism, treating it as if were infallible and perfect.

On the other hand, I’m not quite sure at what point skepticism was considered unhealthy. These days, skepticism is sanctioned only in limited amounts and directed only toward allowed industries or subjects. Yet up through the time when I graduated high school, I recall the phrase “critical thinking” as one so oft-repeated as to make a mockery of what was intended. Critical thinking, then, has essentially all but disappeared from our educational system, and I won’t pretend for a minute to believe that open skepticism of established truths is well-tolerated. Questioning authority and establishment was once a cornerstone of science (and even journalism, to a smaller degree) but now barely tolerated. It’s no wonder that alarmist stories can be reported and repeated across the wire while no one bothers to fact-check or at least consider that there might not be much need for alarmism in the first place.

Let’s hope journalists never find out they can do a Youtube search for “crosswind landings.” They’ll never fly on a plane again.

If content platforms are the engine of the Internet, comments are the grease. Good grease is necessary for the proper function of machinery. Bad grease can cause things to seize up a bit and stop functioning.

You’ve probably noticed that I don’t have comments enabled on this blog. That is by design. I thought about enabling them at first. I thought long and hard about it, believe me. But because of the nature of things I plan to discuss on this site, I think it’s better for both of us if I leave them turned off. That isn’t to say I won’t enable them at some point in the future. It’s possible you’ll see a little comment widget down below by the time you get around to reading this post. But for now, they’re going to be turned off.


Lowering the Signal-to-noise Ratio

Due to the nature of how easy it usually is to comment on most mediums, like a blog, comments often have a very low signal-to-noise ratio. What this means is that the noisy obnoxious sorts of comments tend to be much more prolific than high quality contributions. Furthermore, this is not an industry-specific blog. This is just the soapbox of some random dude on the Internet who occasionally likes to jot down whatever happens to pop up in his head. I’m a technophile of sorts, with interests all over the place, so go here if you’re into that sort of thing. I have comments available on my tech blog, mostly for professional reasons.

Here, however, is another story. Some of my posts might be inflammatory. Some of them may provoke emotion. By removing comments, I short circuit the human need to respond immediately to negative stimulus. If you find something overly provocative, I’d highly recommend that you write a response on your own blog linking to whatever it was that you found interesting. It’s actually better for us to do it this way, because the quality of content we can share when we’ve both taken time to hash out our thoughts improves the Internet as a whole.

That’s the real problem with comments, generally speaking. They’re the path of least resistance and therefore take very little time to plan out. It’s easier to write a short one liner in anger than it is to consider why the text you’re responding to provoked an emotional response. That’s really one of the downsides of the “instant world” we live in. We don’t take time to pause and reflect. We become highly reactive, wishing to share our displeasure immediately. We should strive to become more reflective in our interactions, taking a moment to consider why we feel as we do. This is important for particularly inflammatory topics, like politics (or religion), because most of us simply never spend any time considering the why more than the how we feel.

Thus, to improve the signal-to-noise ratio, I’ll try this as an experiment. If it doesn’t work out, no big deal. I’ll enable comments and we’ll be back to where we started. It seems to work out rather well for a number of other blogs and such.

Useless Comments

Speaking of unwanted noise, I’d like to take a moment to illustrate what sorts of comments are useless. I’d suggest reading Web of Pretentiousness first.

The obviously useless comment is the insult. It comes in a wide variety of flavors, ranging from outright cut downs to more thinly veiled or well articulated stings. It’s useless because its intent is to provoke an emotional response.

Distantly related but equally as common because it encompasses a wide variety of material is the troll. Troll comments are often intended to incite a variety of things, including emotional responses like insults, but also add little to a debate.

Grammar or spelling corrections might seem innocuous at first, but do they really add anything to the conversation? I’m a proponent of accuracy in communication (and very often fail miserably), but stopping the train just to fix a chip in the paint is a bit excessive.

Corrections made to information or inaccuracies are better. If grammar is ambiguous dramatically changing the meaning of a statement, it’s obviously in need of repair. Likewise, wrong or outright misleading information is bad to the reader, so comments intended to improve the quality of a work can be useful. The same applies to comments that instigate meaningful discourse. These are a good thing.

Nitpicking on Grammar

Let me pause here for a minute, because I want to talk a little bit about comments that attempt to correct grammatical or spelling errors. It used to be tolerable, years ago, to content with one or two comments that offered suggestions for improving clarity and quality of the typeset. However, these same comments are often used somewhat pretentiously in effort to troll. I’m not sure if the intent is to discredit the author (such a basic mistake! he’s clearly an idiot!) or to derail the conversation. In either case, it’s not especially useful. For one, if the author even catches the comment, it’s unlikely that he’ll make the necessary corrections if it’s a particularly ancient post. Likewise, it’s impossible to tell if the person leaving the comment is an authority on English grammar. After all, you can be anything you want to be on the Internet, including a doctorate in English–without the doctorate.

Insofar as mistakes go, I do my best to correct them as they’re discovered. Sometimes, though, they slip through the cracks. As such, my most common mistakes tend to be usage errors due in part to either 1) thinking about a particular phrase followed in quick succession by another, mangling the two together or 2) going back through during an edit and interrupting myself in the middle of a change creating something that makes very little sense. Both of these are quite easy to fix and are easy to discover on the first or second read through. If they’re present, it doesn’t mean the author is a complete idiot. It simply means that they weren’t noticed.

To end this section: Just because you’ve found a mistake doesn’t mean you’re a brilliant student of the English language. It means your fresh eyes were more readily able to detect something found in a text you haven’t written. This is why nearly all published material passes the text through an editor. It’s amazing what someone else can see when they weren’t the ones to produce the work.

Curiously, this is due in part to the nature of your noggin’. The human brain gets bored pretty easily, so if you pass the same phrase through it time and time again, it gives up because it has more interesting cruft to think about. It’s a phenomenon that’s similar to what happens if you stare at a word long enough. You’ve had that happen. You look at a familiar word over and over again, then it suddenly becomes unfamiliar and alien. There are a few words to describe this, either as “lexical fatigue,” “semantic satiation (typically in terms of hearing the same phrase repeated again and again), or orthographic incredulity (usually the most common when you get bored of a word). These are the enemy of accuracy, because when your brain gives up, your copy editing skills diminish.

Nitpicking for the Sake of It

Of course, it isn’t just grammar some denizens of the Interwebs find as their obsession. Others hone in on inconsequential minutiae blowing its vastly out of proportion. The devil is in the details, they might speculate, but such speculation is wrought with complexity. Is it really of the utmost importance to aim your focus at something that lends little meaning to the overall point?

The worst of these offenders are those who take a single statement and quote it, completely without context. They do so often for their own convenience, because if they had included context, it would render their argument meaningless or severely handicapped. The extremist will outright bend and contort the original words to mean what they like, sometimes with success, in effort to muddy the waters of debate. It isn’t unusual for this to degrade into a mud-slinging contest of sorts that inevitably diverges from the original post so much as to have no obvious lineage thereof.

There are some that mean well, of course, and simply take it one sentence at a time. These are usually the more sensible communicators who are interested in picking apart a discussion one point at a time. I’ve done this on more occasions than I care to admit. This methodology is still a form of nitpicking, but it’s also the most successful at dealing specifically with the crux of the debate.

Unfortunately, some people (like me) are so hopelessly verbose that the point-by-point method of debate wears down the opposition and ruining the fun for everyone. Usually, less energetic opponents simply stand down (occasionally, but not always, with an insult) and give up. The debate dies on the vine, unsettled, and everyone goes home. If it’s a comment on a blog, this manner of nitpicking can easily attain several dozen pages in length almost overnight and frighten off anyone new who might want to chime in. Although it’s information sharing at its extreme, is substantially increases the noise floor and mutes most other contributions.

My Voice

What I’ve illustrated (and more) applies strictly to my reasoning for disabling comments for the time being. I emphasize that I may revisit this decision in the future. For now, this blog will be exclusively my voice on matters that are tangentially related to things I discuss on my technical blog. If you find something particularly goading, you can direct a message at me on Twitter, but don’t be surprised if I respond to you in another post.

Ultimately, my goal isn’t to squelch or dismiss opposition to my opinions. Neither am I so narcissistic that I would believe mine is the One True Way. Instead, I encourage you to write a response to things you read here on your own blog. Think up a reasoned response. Spend a significant amount of time formulating your opinion and constructing your thoughts. The longer the chronological separate between the time you read my post and the time you reply, the more likely it becomes that reason, not emotion, is the overriding motivator.

Quality is a bit of a give-and-take. Only if we’re willing to give back what we take can we improve online discourse. That’s not to say the occasional tongue-in-cheek mildly inflammatory remarks are all that bad. They’re not; well placed, they can be quite humorous and insightful! They can also be badly misplaced and abused.

Thus, for now, comments will be better left and an exercise to the reader.

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.