In real life, even tough men try to avoid fists to the face or kicks to the chest by keeping their mouths shut in bars … [On the Lost Coast Outpost] no one needs to keep the conversation polite. An insult can’t result in a punch in the nose.”

Marcy Burstiner, North Coast Journal, Aug. 22

Well, well – we have arrived at a strange pass indeed!

Here is a journalism professor at a public university. She writes for a popular weekly publication, and she is disturbed to distraction by anonymous Internet commenters. And so she yearns for the good old days, when we all watched what we said due to the omnipresent threat of physical violence!

I hold my colleague Marcy in high esteem, and, like her, once in a while I have idle fantasies in which one big meanie or another gets some manners curb-stomped into them. Unlike her, I tend to wait half a second or so and let these vile humors dissipate before picking up pen. I do not write wistful essays positing that things would be so much better were we all in constant fear for our personal safety.

But more than one otherwise rational human has approached me all a-tremble, shaken to their core by the everyday Outpost discourse we know and love. None have gone so far as to champion Fists of Fury-style street justice in the way that Marcy has done, but it does seem to take a quiet psychological toll on the pure and innocent.

Papa Hank is here to help. If you are one of the rattled, I think I can talk you through this.

The problem, I believe, lies in your historical understanding of what printed language is meant to do. Even in the Internet’s middle age, when we see something that at least vaguely resembles written English we subconsciously bring all sorts of expectations to the task at hand – Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, Woodward and Bernstein. We picture the contemplative writer in his study, agonizing to organize words in a way that he believes to be good and beautiful and true. And so we prepare to read, say, a story on a spate of recent fires in the city of Eureka.

first comment maf#ck@$ that’s what u get for playing with matches u dumb f#ck!”

Something has gone horribly wrong.

You see, the mistake we sometimes make is to imagine that the comment pertains in any way to the subject at hand. It does not. The comment has nothing whatsoever to do with the subject at hand. It is all about the commenter. The writer is writing to himself, for himself, about himself. He or she uses the medium to act out some primeval Freudian impulse, and so to assure himself or herself that some ego proposition he or she needs to be true is, in fact, true. More or less all of them boil down to some variation of the following: That person is not me! The choices I have made in life were the correct ones! You think you are smarter/richer/more popular/more fortunate than I am, but it is not so!

More often than not, such a commenter has not read the story you have read. They spent a few milliseconds scanning the headline, then got directly to the hate. If you need evidence of this self-evident proposition, go re-read “The 35 Best Times Someone on Facebook Thought The Onion Was Real.

Did you read that? Was it the funniest thing you’ve ever seen? Of course it was. Because what we’re dealing with here is a 200-proof distillation of the ancient human comedy – people struggling to maintain their self-appointed place in the order of things, while the world makes a mockery of their efforts. A person sees a headline that informs them about a new study that shows 85 percent of Americans don’t know the dance moves to the national anthem, and to that person it is instantly go-time: “Everyone wants to be protects and receive ‘hand-outs,’ yet they have no love or appreciation for our country! We have become a nation of welfare mentality!”

Suspicions confirmed! Obama!

The same dynamic holds true on the Outpost, and indeed everywhere on the Internet. And once we all make the necessary adjustments in the way we read online, we can derive the same amount of rich pleasure and insight into Humboldt County’s mass mind as we could from a good novel about the same subject. Think of it this way: Imagine that the commenter in question is a fictional character, and that his Touretteish bursts of dialog give sly glimpses into his inner world. Promising, right? All anonymous commenters are fictional characters. Their authors are their real-life counterparts – their Clark Kents, doffing the glasses and assuming the cape as the computer boots up.

And that’s all there is to it. The comment has absolutely zero to do with the story, and that is a stone-cold fact. No one has any cause to take some random pseudonym at its face, or to use it for anything other than its truly revolutionary comedic value.

Now, you can accept all that as true and still bemoan the promise that the Internet once had, in its early days. The feast of reason and flow of soul, great issues debated and hashed out, a worldwide salon and think tank and Algonquin Round Table in one tidy package. Well, yeah. It’s not often that. But the Lost Coast Outpost has more than its fair share of commenters who determinedly treat it that way nonetheless, cutting against the grain and wishing a better world into existence. We love these people even more than we love the other ones (which is saying something), and you’d probably like them too. The trick is to recognize them as the eye skips down the thread. Look for complete paragraphs, well-formed sentences. You can master it. 

And remember — if you find yourself bummed out by the general state of our humanity, or ready to organize a gang of old-school street toughs to wash all the scum off the Internets, then UR DOING IT WRONG.