July 31, 2007 By Chad Vander Veen
Do the Intarwebs make us more stupider? What an amusing irony it would be if the so-called Information Age actually made us less intelligent.
Along with the wonders the World Wide Web brings to our homes and offices - and laptops and cell phones and video game consoles and God knows what else - it also provides a forum for raving lunatics to voice their insanity.
One of my favorite Web sites is Digg, the news aggregator populated by news links submitted and voted on by users. The more people like the link, the more prominently it's displayed on Digg's main pages. But the problem is that the very thing that makes Digg great - user-generated content - is what makes me feel so stupid when I read it. Here is a sample of the leading links during the time of my writing: Bush's Grandfather Directed Bank Who Funded Hitler; Gay Flamingos Adopt a Baby; and Woman Drinks 12 Diet Cokes a Day.
Digg, like many other news-aggregating sites, allows users to also comment on stories. Would you believe 200 people have something to say about a woman who drinks a dozen Diet Cokes? In the offline world, you'd be lucky to find two people who'd care to comment. But online, every person can, and often does, share their two cents. Sometimes you read some really funny, insightful stuff - comments that go on to be Internet memes (temporarily popular Internet phenomena, such as the LOLcats or L337 speak). But more often, Internet commentary is evidence that the globe is full of failing high school students, conspiracy nut jobs and video game fanboys.
For some reason, the Internet makes people do and say things they would never otherwise do or say. Over at Penny Arcade, a popular webcomic, comic character Jonathan Gabriel once enounced the brutally eloquent Greater Internet Jerkwad* Theory, which states that: Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Jerkwad*. Yet Web sites like Digg, Fark and Slashdot are getting more popular because user comments - no matter how stupid - are interesting in their own right. So much so that traditional news outlets are entering the commenting game.
In addition to the detrimental effect anonymity has on normal people, some "Netizens" have a special way of taking part of a story and transforming it into something simultaneously hilarious and utterly moronic. Take the word "Intarwebs" or its relative "Intertubes." Each began life as a play on a quote. The former word came from President Bush's usage of the term "Internets," and the latter was taken from Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens' explanation of the Internet as a "series of tubes." In fact, many Internet users would know exactly what you meant from the word "tubes." For example, if a person were to say, "The tubes are clogged again," he or she would mean Web sites are loading slowly.
This is all symptomatic of the Internet's uncanny ability to reduce big chunks of very useful information into tiny bits of questionably useful stuff. I just hope these little nuggets of data I glean every day aren't turning me into an Internet idiot.
*less offensive term substituted for original.