One of my friend Alex’s hard and fast rules is: never talk to the Internet people. Don’t read blog comments, don’t reply to blog comments, don’t get in flamewars. It’s a rule I follow myself, by and large; I almost never read blog comments (Update: except here, of course) and never, ever, ever engage in debates within them. In my considered opinion, blog comments tend to be a home for trolls. Most people who comment on my blog posts or tweets do so either directly in Twitter or in Facebook, where most of my data gets cross-posted. And I’m fine with that; I’ve actually gotten comments from non-friends on Twitter to things I’ve said that genuinely made me rethink what I was saying.

One of the most unfortunate notions in our current society is the idea that every person’s voice deserves to be heard. By this I don’t mean that people don’t have the right to speak; I believe in absolute freedom of speech, even for those I most despise. But I don’t believe that anyone is innately entitled to an audience for their speech, or to have their speech carefully considered or taken seriously by society as a whole. If you want to be taken seriously, you need to earn that right, by saying something worth listening to.

I’ve found that nothing enrages a person more than having their opinion summarily dismissed. Hence the Tea Party, which is primarily comprised of people who feel as though their voices aren’t heard in the public forum. By and large this is true, but it’s also for good reason: judging by what they do say (and write on placards) when the cameras are on them, most of them seem to have much the same capacity for reasoned and critical thought that a ring-tailed lemur has for forming a really good metal band. We ignore them not because they’re poor or disenfranchised; we ignore them because they’re ignorant and stupid — and willfully so, in a country with some of the best access to educational tools on Earth — which, ironically, most Tea Partiers and similar right-wing libertarian types seem to want to get rid of entirely. I can only assume that this is because walking past a school or a library fills them with shame and self-loathing.

I don’t engage these people in debate either on the Internet or in real life. What’s the point? They don’t listen, they seem incapable of understanding a nuanced position, they simply want to be told that they’re right, and also that Barack Obama was actually born on a small moon orbiting Tau Ceti and that he’s merely laying the groundwork for an invasion of aliens who will invade our country and then sit on their lazy tentacles all day, doing nothing but soaking up our welfare dollars.

Why would I waste a minute of my time listening or even talking to these sad specimens of the American gene pool?

For this stance, I am occasionally asked that most American of questions: who are you to judge other people? My answer is: I’m a guy who paid enough attention in grade school to know the proper usage of homophones like “there”, “their” and “they’re” or “your” and “you’re”. I don’t believe the world is six thousand years old, because I get my cosmology from people who actually study the universe, not a collection of oral folk tales invented by nomadic goat herders in the days when bronze was still a daring and radical new invention. (I’ve also personally stood in a city that is demonstrably older than that, but don’t take my word for it.) I can not only spell “Afghanistan”, but I know where it’s located on a map of the Earth, and why it’s so goddamn difficult to fight any kind of war there. I’ve been lucky enough to live in one Islamic country and visit another, and gain some small understanding of the differences between that culture and my own — an understanding which is desperately necessary in our times.

Most of all, I’m someone who believes that no intellectual or ideological position is worth holding unless it can be sustained against criticism and debate, both internal and external; that if you cannot successfully defend your opinion on a topic, you probably shouldn’t have one; and that your only guarantee of admittance into the global forum of public conversation is your ability to be articulate, intelligent, coherent and convincing in the things you choose to say.

That’s who I am to judge.

Now, then: if you spend any time online, you’re probably aware of CAPTCHAs. The most useful one, in my opinion, is reCAPTCHA, which not only ensures that the user is human, but uses their innate language-recognition skills to help digitize books. CAPTCHAs are not infallible ways of preventing spam, but they’ve done a lot to lower the volume.

I’d like to propose something along similar lines, but in a different direction: a web service that inserts a different sort of CAPTCHA into a blog or news website, one that’s not aimed at blocking spam bots, but blocking cretins: an intellectual CAPTCHA. (I’m aware that I’m not the first person to come up with this idea, but I think the others who came before me were kidding. I’m not.)

I think the following mockups pretty well sum up my idea:

 

Such a tool would be perfectly accessible to visually-impaired Web users, utilizing audio cues for both the example sentence and the option words (which would be spelled out: “W-O-U-L-D apostrophe V-E”). It would simply present a barrier to anyone without basic literacy skills.

An argument could be made that this also presents a barrier to persons with reading difficulties such as dyslexia. My response is that finding the correct answer to these problems is really only a simple Google query away. Or you could include a link to this helpful visual aid within your iqCAPTCHA. In this way, an iqCAPTCHA could not only weed out undesirable commenters, it could serve as a valuable learning tool for those who feel the uncontrollable urge to post their deathless thoughts to a primarily text-based Internet without the benefit of basic literacy skills. And frankly, if they’re not willing to work for it, fuck ’em anyway.

I am absolutely, 100% serious about this. I think that it might serve as a very small way of rebalancing the signal-to-noise ratio of the “conversation” we’re all apparently having (even with people we wouldn’t actually piss on if they were on fire in real life). It would work similarly to reCAPTCHA, as a web service you would sign into and create an API key for. A WordPress plugin would be an absolute must, and optional adoption by Tumblr and Blogger and Facebook would go a long way towards significantly reducing the assheadedness of Internet discourse in an expedient fashion.

If you’re interested in such an idea, let me know in the comments below. (Which are currently only protected by a reCAPTCHA, so if you’re an idiot, you can still be included in this forum…for now.) If enough people are interested, I’ll do it and set up a PayPal donation box or something.

  1. I have only 2 criticisms:

    1. It’s restricted to English. I presume other languages have equivalent homonyms though.

    2.PLEASE don’t include “it’s” “its” and “its'” ‘cos I never remember how that one goes!

  2. Well, I assume you could do localizations pretty easily based upon the browser’s default language.

    And as for its and it’s, it’s simple: “its” is possessive, the gender-neutral equivalent of “his/her”. “It’s” is a contraction of “it is”. There is no word its’ in English. It’s like saying “his’s”. πŸ™‚

  3. I’m sympathetic to the idea, but I do have a bit of a problem with your equating grammar with intelligence. There are people out there that are perfectly capable of having an intelligent opinion and defending it, but for perfectly reasonable reasons (class/money/circumstance), they have never learned to use an apostrophe. I agree that these people are in the minority; but.

    In short: you’re not wrong, but you are, also, being snobbish.

    Now, I have a *major* problem with you not ever reading blog comments. But of course there is no problem going into details, because you’re not reading this. Right?

  4. Well, yes, I am being snobbish. Absolutely I am. πŸ™‚

    Seriously, if you haven’t learned second grade grammar (or can’t be bothered to Google the rules), what are the chances I want to to hear what you have to say?

    And I was unclear when I said I don’t read blog comments; I meant I don’t read comments on *other* blogs, usually. Particularly professional blogs, like Gawker or whatever. (Not that I read Gawker itself, but you know what I mean.) I read all the comments on Zenarchery. πŸ™‚

  5. Your idea is spot-on – there are many reasons why I agree with this. We have nothing to lose except useless posts!

  6. I get where you’re coming from. I’ve recently decided to stop reading blog posts on any site with a huge readership because the signal to noise ratio gets skewed all to hell and the noise is overwhelmingly negative. It’s like choosing to stand in front of that crazy guy on the street corner who shouts a steady stream of invective all day.

    Anyway, I would be all for this, but I’m worried about the evolution of this idea. It’ll start at basic grammar and education, but I could easily see this migrating towards filtering responses based on political views and ideology. Not that certain blogs don’t manually filter out any idea that they don’t agree with, but this idea would make it even easier to ignore comments from people with ideas they don’t agree with.

    I’m trying to reconcile in my mind if this would help or hurt the internet. It certainly seems to have the potential to further silo online conversation.

  7. Your point is well-taken, but I’ll be honest: I expect grammar school literacy as a baseline for engaging in online conversation with me. Maybe that is, as shadowfirebird says, snobbish or elitist, but at this point in my life I just don’t have the inclination to argue with people who can’t even be bothered to express themselves at a high school level.

    As far as response filtering goes, you’re entirely right there as well…but I’ve come to the conclusion — and I didn’t always think this way — that people basically have the right to decide what conversations they want to engage in and what conversations they want to ignore. When it comes to something like a blog, that’s one person’s soapbox; they do not owe you the right to express yourself therein. You’re perfectly free to get your own blog; it’s free and easy, and as far as I’m aware, things like trackbacks still work. If you want to comment on someone else’s post, use your own blog to do it; if they want to engage from there on your blog or theirs, awesome.

    I could be wrong about all of this. I’m willing to concede that. I just think it’s worth some consideration.

  8. Bad idea, I just got trolled for MONTHS from people “smarter” than me because they were grammar Nazis and thought I should be thought a lesson for my “ellipses abuse”, I’d rather have a thousand comments from ignorant trolls than one comment from a “smart” one.

    The smart trolls are the ones who can cause serious damage, the dumb ones are obvious and easy to ignore, specially since they are so hard to read in the first place!

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