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.