Why snap judgments at warp speed are ruining the Internet for me

A plea for more considered thought online, in way more than 140 characters.

What do shoes say about your brainpower?
Can you tell which woman has the higher IQ? Hint: They are both the author. Josh Miller/CNET

commentary First, there was the dongle joke. Then came the stilettos.

To sum it up: A dude at a tech conference tweets a picture of a woman's feet in stilettos, and judges her to be brainless based on the fact that she is wearing said footwear. Predictably, outrage ensues.

This tweet was followed by many others accusing him of being sexist and just as superficial as he seemed to think this woman is. The whole "conversation" if you will, can be summed up as:

Dude at conference: Ew! Look at her shoes! WHAT AN IDIOT!
Bunch of people on Internet: Scoff! Judging a woman for her attire? WHAT A SEXIST JERK!

Is he sexist? No. Well, I don't know the guy; maybe he is. But my guess is quite the opposite. I have a hunch Jorge Cortell, the man at the center of this particular fury-party, is a perfectly nice, equality-loving guy who thought damning high heels might help absolve women of feeling they need to wear them to impress the men who, by and large, still dominate this industry.

I suspect the intent was to send a message to women of the technology world that, "Hey, ladies, you can wear more comfortable outfits and we'll still respect you for your minds." Instead, the message received was very different. The message I got (and judging from the response, I'm obviously not alone in this) is, "Hey, ladies, wear whatever you want. But know that we will, in fact, judge your intellectual abilities based on your clothes alone."

The problem, for me, is not that a person thinks high heels are bad for women's feet. There's plenty of evidence that suggests wearing extremely high heels frequently will alter the physiology of one's feet. Maybe Cortell thought he was doing his part to move our society toward one with social norms for attire that don't do permanent damage to our bodies. A noble goal, and something to be talked about intelligently.

Some intelligent discussion has followed. One example is this Atlantic piece pointing out that women can, in fact, wear heels without judgment -- but only if they've already attained some level of power in their careers. Never mind that projecting an image of power is one primary way people attain actual power. But by and large, the dominating tone of the conversation has been shallow and angry.

The problem is that this particular message, as so many perfectly reasonable and well-intentioned messages are these days, was delivered in less than 140 characters with the snide tone that is the face of humor in social media right now. It didn't come across as supportive of females in tech. It came across as public shaming.

And unfortunately what was probably meant to be a genuinely insightful commentary on a social norm was immediately reduced to yet another name-calling battle. Whatever the original intent was is lost. And the response was so vitriolic that it would be hard for Cortell to not just block much of it out.

Whenever I read snarky messages like this (and the inevitable chaos that follow them), I feel as though I've reverted to grade school -- like we're all issuing a collective "Ooooh, burrrrrrn. You got her good, @callitlikeiseeit415" whenever someone gets a person's goat in the form of a bitchy tweet or SnarkECard shared on Facebook.

The Internet is freaking awesome, and it has the potential to bring unimaginable amounts of information and inspiration to anyone with access to it. But this is what we, the power users, are doing with it? To snipe at each other in 25 words or fewer? Come on, people. We can do better.

Yes, snark can be incredibly, bitingly, tears-of-laughter-inducingly funny. But it shouldn't take the place of forming complete thoughts. And, yes, calling people out when they're truly, over-the-top wrong or offensive to the point of damaging others can work. But it can also make people inhibited, defensive, and even more resistant to your opinion.

This kind of dialogue can hardly even be called that. It doesn't make us or anyone around us smarter or better informed. And this is what frustrates me so much about these increasingly common rage wars. There is something interesting at their core. But playing these debates out via Twitter or two-sentence Facebook comments makes them all but worthless.

My suggestion? Use more words when you can. And if you can't, drop some of the alienating snark -- even if it means you get fewer favorites on that tweet.

 

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