Bruno isn’t really a bad guy, I guess, as long as you’re on his good side. You don’t really seek out his company, but he lives in the neighborhood, so a certain amount of contact is unavoidable. And you know that sooner or later, probably after a few beers, he’s going to start going on about something. Maybe he’ll take on one of those big public targets like the President or Bill Gates, or maybe he’ll go on about something real specific that’s bugging him, like who makes the best pizza or whether to leave the toilet seat up.
In any case, you know you’re going to hear a lot of shallow garbage. In fact, it’s worse than that – before long, racist smears will begin to drip from his tongue like drool from a rabid Rottweiler. Along with it, you’ll get homophobic rants, misogynistic tirades, and extreme judgments rooted in an incredible ignorance of the subject in question.
Everyone who knows Bruno knows that you can’t argue with him. If you do, you’ll find yourself quickly labeled as a “[Whatever] lover” – the “Whatever” being the person, group, or concept that Bruno is railing against. Oh, he’ll also use much more colorful language than that, and if you press your point too far or try to trick him with tactics like logic and facts, he may even threaten you with physical violence.
But it rarely comes to that, because we all know Bruno and we won’t waste our time on such a Sisyphean undertaking as trying to change his mind. So when Bruno gets going, we keep our outward reactions to a minimum. If he puts us on the spot with a piercing stare, we may simply grunt and nod, which will usually satisfy him. And besides, various members of our social group agree with some of what Bruno has to say, so he may occasionally find himself speaking for a group of people whose nodding and grunting is completely genuine.
So Bruno isn’t really a problem, because he’s a known quantity and an unavoidable part of our local social group that we have long since learned how to deal with. In spite of all his well known foibles and prejudices, we have no big problem being his neighbor and coworker.
It’s 2011, and Bruno has been handed a new outlet for his views. He now has a smart phone. The irony that he would own a smart phone is of course lost on him, so I will let it pass. Bruno is on Twitter and Facebook, and he’s also fond of posting comments on news sites and blogs. And while his spelling and grammar leave a lot to be desired, his points are simple enough that he is able to get them across.
My point is that this is something new and different in human society. Bruno is now able to be Bruno across a spectrum of social groups that would never have come close to him in former times. 99%+ of the people reading his words have never had to come to terms with incorporating Bruno’s foibles into their social considerations. Making matters worse, many of them think no more deeply than Bruno does, only they’ve come to different conclusions. They then proceed to either argue online with Bruno or, more often, simply hurl insults his way.
To the outside surfer with a brain who happens across such an exchange, the specific lines of reasoning on display can be dismaying or even depressing. You may be tempted to add comments of your own in an effort to add balance and depth to the discussion. Such efforts are not rewarded. The mere fact that you have expressed an opinion – any opinion – in such a forum makes you a target, either for Bruno and his ilk, or simply for online mischief makers who enjoy the burst of adrenaline that they get from being obstinate contrarians.
[Sidebar — Early on in my blogging career, I foolishly engaged in an extended online argument over something I’d posted. The other party clung tenaciously to a viewpoint that I’d thoroughly discredited, and I got far more worked up than I should have. I finally did a little digging on the identity of my fellow arguer and found that she was a 15 year-old who was literally being stubborn for the fun of it. In her final message, she thanked me for a GREAT argument and expressed the hope that we’d be able to do it again soon… OK. My bad. Lesson learned. And by the way, she was far more articulate and thoughtful than most of the trolls one encounters online]
Back to Bruno – He’s out there, and if you want to post your thoughts online, you’d best be ready to deal with him. You have a few options:
— If you’re going to post comments on popular or general news sites, you’re going to run into Bruno. It’s unavoidable. If you want to argue with him… well, you’ve been warned.
— You can restrict your more well-considered thoughts to your own personal blog – which is precisely what I’m doing right now. The upside of this approach is that strangers rarely (though occasionally) wander by, so if someone disagrees with me here, it’s usually someone I know, which means we understand how to communicate with one another and can have a civil discussion of the matter in question. The downside, if it’s important to you, is that you won’t have thousands of people reading your words of wisdom (unless you’re way more into self-promotion than I am).
— You can be selective about what you post and where. Even then, there are no guarantees. It never ceases to amaze and amuse me how people can twist literally any topic around to whatever’s bugging them. I might read a news item about a new species of rodent found in the Gobi Desert, yet the comments section will include a long thread of arguments about evil politicians and the coming Apocalypse, replete with back-alley insults hurled at any dissenters. Meanwhile, our poor elusive rodent has retreated beneath the sands of the Gobi, wishing everyone would forget about him.
— You can eschew online commentary completely. No really, you can. There are a lot of folks out there who may surf the internet every day, but who never leave their words online in anything other than a personal email.
So that’s how posting public messages to websites works here in 2011. It’s important to remember, though, that we are surrounded by dynamic, evolving technologies. The internet in ten years will almost certainly be something very different from what it is today. A wide variety of forces will determine where it goes; everything from economics to demographics to regulation to technological breakthroughs to warfare will make the internet of 2021 something we would scarcely recognize today. These might even be the Good Old Days of the Internet, so I don’t want to complain too much.