A tale of Internet innocence. This was about five years ago. The gossip website Gawker had published a semi-salacious report about the visit of a certain aging male celebrity to the Yale campus. The article was based on a couple of pieces that students had written for a class of mine, pieces that had somehow made it into Gawker’s hands. Another student had mistakenly been identified as the object of said celebrity’s attentions, was being harassed by the media with calls and emails, and appealed to me for help. I asked Gawker to run a clarification, which they did, but not without making a few snarky comments at my expense.
That’s when I did something foolish: I answered them back—pretty angrily and hastily, too—forgetting the old adage about not picking a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel, and failing as well to grasp a new principle: on the Internet, people don’t need to take you down themselves, because their readers will be happy do it for them. Gawker simply posted my response, which—I really am an idiot—I had dared them to do. The first comment said, “I guess this is what you would call an Ivy League class Douchebag.” The second one said, “They let Joey Tribbiani teach literature?” The fifth one said (they had run my photo alongside the post), “When his eyes finish growing together, he’ll be a mighty handsome cyclops indeed!” And there were 54 others, almost all in the same vein. It felt like standing in a spit storm.
I was reminded of all this during the election, the first one whose coverage took cognizance of Twitter. Wolf Blitzer solemnly reported the wisdom of people with usernames like “dogfart.” The Twitterverse lit up, we were informed, when Clint Eastwood went man to man with the empty chair. At least one network ran a crawl of tweets at the bottom of the screen during the presidential debates. Even PBS had someone there to tell us, during the post-debate analysis, which topics had “trended” on the social networking site (as well as what a focus group of “Walmart moms” had felt about it all). At last we were getting to know what the great American public was thinking in real time.
Or rather, what it was “thinking.” That’s the link with my Gawker debacle. My initial reaction, five years ago, had been to dismiss my detractors as stupid. But they weren’t necessarily stupid. The site’s audience was said to lean, at least back then, toward young Manhattan media types, many of whom had presumably gone to good colleges. It was only their comments that were stupid, and for a very simple reason. The first 47 had poured down in less than two hours. That’s 2½ minutes per comment. I’m not capable of writing anything very intelligent, either, when I only have 2½ minutes to think about it. In fact, that was exactly the problem with my own contribution to the dialogue, the one that Gawker posted to such glee: I didn’t stop to think about it, and in particular, to think about the way that people would react to it.
Thinking well takes time: time for doubt, time for analysis and synthesis, time to let your intuition operate, time to have a second thought. The faster we write, the faster we respond (on Twitter or Facebook, in discussion threads or texts), the more superficial the level of consciousness we’re working from. We’re skimming the surface of our minds (which, like the surface of other things, is mostly foam and crud), forgoing reason, judgment, artistry, craft. That is not the place from which the most intelligent forms of communication, the ones that used to play a larger role in our lives—novels, essays, serious journalism—originate. But it is the place our public discourse, and our private discourse, too, increasingly inhabits.
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