The widespread criticism of Jaden Smith tweets on social media like Facebook, Reddit, and Quora attests to a huge, unresolved hypocrisy in modern internet discourse. It’s insane how people who have never touched a work of classical literature in their lives have the nerve to throw insults at an innocent 16-year old who has, in all honesty, performed much more introspection and self-reflection than any of they have from their cozy, philosophical armchairs.
Online forums have recently been suffering from an epidemic of chronic longposting. I’m not talking about informative longposts full of content and rich insight. No, I’m discussing something far more horrible, the enormous, unreadable posts that dominate all of mainstream “intellectual” comment threads, typically on Reddit and, to a lesser extent, 4chan and its sisters. These posts are ugly gray skyscrapers built all-too-quickly and lacking the structural integrity and architectural finesse that makes buildings worth having at all. They are disgusting and bloated tumors that smother and swallow up all that is good, pushing and shoving with their awkward enormousness.
You might have forgotten that “TL;DR” (pronounced tee-ell-dee-arr or teal-dear) originally used to stand for “too long; didn’t read,” and its expanded form hints at its original purpose. “TL;DR” was invented to encourage the reading of lengthy posts by providing summaries of the juiciest moments at the end. It created an incentive for internet users with rapidly dwindling attention spans to actually focus on a continuous narrative for an extended period of time. But it is, by all means, a crutch, a far-from-ideal compromise that spoils some of the satisfaction of reading a rich post by giving it away in advance. It was necessary in a world where no one could bother to read a damn thing, but our world has since changed.
If you were to go on Reddit nowadays, you would never have guessed that the TL;DR, by its very nature and original purpose, was a bad thing. Instead, you see Reddit commentors typing out long, rambling walls of text with the TL;DR pasted proudly at the beginning of the comment! Sometimes you can even see TL;DRs quite a few sentences in length! Indeed, Reddit is experiencing a disease that is entirely separate from what the TL;DR was meant to cure:
Chronic longposting — the tendency for online commentors to vomit all of their unorganized thoughts directly onto the keyboard, with little regard for coherence, structure, and thesis, but still being thoughtful enough to attach a useless TL;DR at the very end. Whereas the TL;DR was a creation made by good writers in order to deal with the problem of bad readers, Reddit is now experiencing a flood of bad writers who are only being encouraged by a population of overeager readers, i.e., users with extended attention-spans who are willing to devote a large amount of time and energy faithfully and tirelessly reading longposts, regardless of their potential quality.
Unbelievable, isn’t it? We’ve collectively reached the point in the internet where users will actually read everything in front of them. For all the criticisms I throw at Redditors, this is perhaps one good thing. But the disease of chronic longposting is wrong because it encourages two completely unfavorable behaviors. I’ll start with the obvious one:
Chronic longposting rewards bad writers and punishes the good. The idea that “brevity is the soul of wit” seems to have been completely forgotten on modern-day Reddit. Concepts and arguments that could easily be articulated pretty well in a short amount of sentences become artificially bloated and overcomplicated, often riddled with completely unnecessary analogies. A famous Reddit post that comes to mind is that god-awful longpost where some inarticulate rambling idiot uses hypothetical bartenders to explain why Google Plus was unsuccessful.
I think it is pretty obvious that we should not reward people who are incapable of structuring and framing their ideas concisely. But most online comment systems do precisely that! Any user who casually scrolls through a comment thread will generally pay more attention to longer posts, since they take up so much more visible area than shorter posts. As a result, the Hemmingways of the internet are being drowned out by a sea of inarticulate non-writers. The easiest solution to this problem is simply to force a hard limit on visual post size, truncating all longposts with ellipses (“…”) that can be expanded by the user if he or she is interested. Now, let’s move onto the second deadly sin that longposting directly encourages:
The culture of longposting incentivizes over-reading, but over-reading is not an inherently good thing. An educated reader should be able to exercise discretion in his or her consumption of literature. If a random commentor on Reddit hasn’t established why his or her post is interesting at all, or even worse, if the post starts reeking of the trash-like scent of shitposting, it is well within a reader’s rights to just stop reading. The idea that a reader is somehow obligated to read longposts is puzzling and outright stupid. Why should any decent human being be forced to pollute his or her mind with the naive, rambling, and oftentimes incoherent longposts of random Reddit users?
I would gladly eat a chicken salad sandwich if someone offered it me to free, because such a meal would be fairly healthy and tasty. I would even eat a juicy hamburger if someone offered it to me for free, because it would be delicious despite its fattiness. But I would never eat a pile of stinking, rotting garbage even if someone paid me to do so, because garbage tastes terrible and is extremely unhealthy. Online longposts are exactly the same: there is absolutely no reason for you to ingest somebody’s trash-vomit assortment of thoughts even if they set it up for you on a on a silver platter.
TL;DR: Chronic longposting disgusts me, and it should disgust you too. The “TL;DR” has long ago exhausted its purpose and deserves to die once and for all. Let us be rid of this awful crutch, that we can finally give the concise and witty writings of the internet the attention that they rightfully deserve. Or at the very least, we can start having posts that are exactly as long as they need to be.
In the following shortpost, I use the word “Redditor” several times. But it’s a term that doesn’t strictly limit itself to actual users of Reddit.com, and in fact it excludes a pretty significant portion of Reddit’s population. What I mean by “Redditor” is the archetypal Reddit personality, characterized by:
- Browsing online forums
- Focusing on “intellectual” topics such as morality, public policy, world news, religion, science, etc.
- Not having a substantial background in these “intellectual” topics but constantly engaging in “debates” about them regardless
- Often describing himself as “intelligent,” “logical,” and “scientific”
- Generally lacking a sense of self-awareness
One reason why online armchair morality is so bad is because too many people think that ethics = decision-making. They believe in some unfounded principle that if you rationally choose something, that must mean that you think it’s moral. But there’s no reason why this should be the case. People rationally choose to do immoral things all the time. When I use the word “rationally” in this sense, I do not mean 100% word-of-God divine rationality, but the average amount of rationality that a reasonable person would employ in his or her day-to-day actions, free from direct physical and mental coersion.
Sometimes I commit an act of littering by dropping chewing gum wrappers on the ground. I am fully aware that what I am doing is wrong, but I choose to do it regardless. Sometimes (actually, almost every day) I eat meat. I know that this is wrong, but I do it anyways, because meat is a very convenient source of protein and pretty tasty at the same time. There’s no reason to conflate human decision making with human morality. If anything, it should be intuitively obvious that because humans strive to live up to some ideal morality that the average human would, therefore, be at least a teeny little bit immoral.
And this is why Reddit ethics debates are so terrible: Redditors just want to design a moral framework that justifies everything they do. Redditors think that an ethical system that doesn’t provide a convenient excuse for their everyday actions is a bad system. It’s a point of view that is characteristic of people who haven’t really thought critically about ethics, and even worse, of people who are dangerously self-unaware. Any virtuous person who lives in this fallen world (Redditors: I use this term metaphorically) should at the very least be able to list his or her own flaws. A good moral system doesn’t come after-the-fact.
One thing that immediately struck me about the latest xkcd comic is how mind-numbingly funny it is. In an online world that is increasingly lacking in genuinely funny and original content, I applaud Randall Munroe for making the effort to craft such a cleverly written and highly innovative comic strip. The flow and meter of the stick figure’s words are so vivid and musical, and Randall marks the beginning of this intellectual and comedic adventure with such highly articulate words as: “The right to free speech means the government can’t arrest you for what you say.” Incredible! It’s a wonder that the Founding Fathers even thought it necessary to dedicate entire paragraphs to the concept of freedom of speech when our good friend Randall can do the job for them in only one short sentence.
Alright, I give up. Sarcasm really isn’t my thing, especially when I’m going to have to spend so much of my time unravelling this giant honking piece of shit. Honestly, it makes me wonder what kind of person who writes such good what-if columns and had some of the greatest early webcomic strips of all time can be so completely delusional now. Let’s get started.
This comic is just fundamentally contentless at its most basic level and performs absolutely no actual social work: the kinds of people who invoke freedom of speech as an actual defending argument are either 1) such literal plebeians that they wouldn’t be moved by a condescending and unapologetically preachy webcomic or 2) were never even trying to argue with you in the first place and just wanted you to fuck off because you were being annoying. There is no person in the world who would look at this comic and actually learn anything from it. Munroe’s comic is pretty much equivalent to going to a Wal-Mart and trying to teach the customers what free speech means: it’s so obviously pointless, undeniably useless, and completely masturbatory.
And even if this comic actually did answer some sort of real social problem, it’s stupidly blunt, completely unfunny, and not original in the slightest. There is a concept called “satire” that Munroe could have used to convey the lesson that he wanted us to learn, but I guess it was just beyond his capabilities. Instead, he decides to talk to us as if we’re all braindead children, and he makes it incredibly clear that this comic’s sole reason for existing is because poor Mr. Munroe had his little baby feelings hurt after losing an argument against someone.
I mean, really. Look at it! It’s just terrible. The majority of the comic is literally just a stick figure talking to you at various angles and poorly-done zoom in shots in order to add just enough “variety” that your eyeballs wouldn’t instantly implode upon seeing them. For the last panel, he even just draws a literal picture of a door because he thinks that will compensate for his complete lack of any meaningful illustration in the majority of the panels. I would figure that most reasonable artists would try to make up for the lack of illustration with some particularly poetic English constructions, but I guess Munroe decided that the 300,000 people watching him really love to hear his visceral and almost nonsensical musings expressed with both the vocabulary and wit of a 10-year-old schoolchild.
The worst part about this comic is that everybody agrees with it. It’s such blatant preaching to the choir, such an unimpeded pandering to some sort of Reddit self-superiority circlejerk of which I’m 100% certain exists. Munroe could have easily leveraged his audience to address an actual intellectual issue in public discourse, such as, for example, our tendency of overvaluing individual rights in a pluralist society to the detriment of moral development, or perhaps why “absolute freedom of speech” is impossible, or just ANYTHING INTERESTING, really! Not the shitty and completely boring habits of uneducated literal plebeians who don’t know the meaning of free speech.
I’d like to ask just one question before signing off: Why is it that engineers always insist on getting so heavily involved in public moral discourse when they really have no idea what they’re talking about? I’m an engineer too, but at least I acknowledge my limitations. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a philosophy major try to relay an armchair theory about the construction of bridges, or an English major try to demonstrate a faulty mathematical proof. But who knows? Munroe has always seemed to think that our society is becoming the chest-beating jock-dominated world of Idiocracy, but I think that the far more insidious problem is the growing group of middle class STEM-majoring pseudo-intellectuals who arrogantly think that they completely understand ethics, public policy, and morality. Fun fact: you need to actually take an ethics class before you can claim to understand it.