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The Internet Loves Stupid But You Should Be Smart

10/03/2013 12:21 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Picture this, if you will.

"A", a popular Quebec web "personality" leaves his Facebook account open. "B", his friend and another well-known vlogger, writes a fake status, pretending to be "A" confessing that he likes big women and asking that they contact him. When they do, "A" promptly takes a screenshot with their eyes and names blacked out in their profile pictures (yet still highly recognizable) and publishes it, under the header "Best Facebook Rape Of All Time." "B" then posts a video where he pretends to be upset over this, but since he can barely contain his laughter, everyone, other than those who are lacking in brain matter, know he really isn't.

In the meantime, both their followers on Facebook are busy victimizing these women all over again, by laughing at them, poking fun at their weight, sharing the incident and implying that they somehow deserved what happened to them because -- after all -- they were "sluts" who responded to his fake personal ad. You know, the way a woman who gets raped deserved for it to happen because she was drinking too much, was in the wrong part of town or wore a skirt that was too short.

Aside from the fact that this carefully orchestrated and extremely insensitive prank contributed and added to even more slut-shaming and fat-shaming of the worst kind, what's most disturbing is that these weren't the cheeky, irresponsible actions of two teenagers who perhaps have some more growing up to do. These were the actions of two grown-ass men; one of which is in his mid-30's and has two children of his own.

It is both disappointing and baffling to me that these two would somehow think, in their frantic pursuit for web hits and social media "likes" that such a callous, unfeeling, and what could -- by all accounts -- be labelled as cyber-bullying (of their very own followers, no less) was OK. That this was legit. That this was no big deal. That this was just a silly joke that crossed the line a little. That 'boys will be boys', let's shrug our shoulders, mutter "what are you going to do?" and move along.

While the incident barely registered in Quebec's English-speaking community, since most Anglophones probably don't have a clue who Gab Roy and Matthieu Bonin are (despite the fact that the latter has close to 80,000 followers), it didn't seem to create that big of a stir among French-speaking young Quebecers either. A few Facebook spats here and there, but it had all fizzled out in a few days.

So much so, that by the time I sat down to write this, I wondered if I should even bother at all. But the incident bothered me so much, and I felt so mortified for these innocent women whose privacy and dignity had been compromised for the sake of a lame internet prank, that I felt compelled to write something. If only, to simply denounce it.

Because, I don't know about you, but I'm starting to really get tired of living in a world that facilitates and celebrates the culture of crass and the glorification of stupid.

And make no mistake about it. While stupid is everywhere, nowhere is it more pronounced than on the web these days. Mainly because it's easy, it's free, it's everywhere, and it's the fastest route to notoriety and fame -- no matter how superficial or parochial. No matter how devoid of real content.

I'm not sure why I'm surprised. After all, we're part of the Jackass Generation -- a world where people do incredibly obnoxious and ridiculous things, film them, share them, and then laugh all the way to the bank.

We're part of a world where being stupid and vapid and unapologetic is rewarded. It's rewarded with internet hits, with fame, with imitations; and eventually with money.

It's a world where popularity is too often mistaken for substance. Where Kim Kardashian -- she of leaked sex tapes and 78-day marriages -- somehow has 18 million Twitter followers (18 million followers... let that sink in), while writers Teju Cole and Alain de Botton, both communicators of some of the most concisely lucid and enlightening tweets I've ever read, barely manage a couple of hundred thousand followers each.

Author Cindy Gaudry, in The Last Single Woman in America writes: "There's too much out there, and it's all going too fast."

She wasn't talking about the internet, but she might as well have been.

As a result, it's a numbers game. Everyone is an opponent or a potential suitor and heir to the popularity throne, and everyone wants to win the pissing contest. It's a perverted game of Darwin's "survival of the fittest". If I can outwit and outpace you, then I outrank you. At least until the next post takes away all my limelight.

So the internet bad boys (because that's how they see themselves), in order to set themselves apart, to make their mark, to somehow not get lost in the sea of daily web offerings, continuously push the boundaries, attempt to shock and awe, cross that line in the sand between irreverent and inconsiderate as they throw around half-baked ideas and thoughts in a frantic attempt to get hits, to get 'likes' to get passed around and become -- and remain -- relevant.

We freeze frame this stupidity -- we take screen shots of it and share, we revel in the easy idiocy of pranks and insults as the new epitome of rebellious 'cool', as we trip all over ourselves to one-up the web trendsetters, the new kids setting the rules of the game. There's profit in stupidity (consider it the web version of junk food: easily palatable, but so damn bad for you in the long run) and there are those only too willing to sacrifice content for crap that gets shared around.

They revel in the controversy, in the hate, in the rightful (yet perhaps useless) indignation of the many, somehow associating web traffic with having arrived. It's perhaps less painful and mortifying for them and their deluded sense of grandeur to believe one's self as unpopular and misunderstood by the mainstream, rather than insignificant. Which is what the overwhelming majority of their work is, after all. When one doesn't advance the cause of anything, one doesn't provide food for thought, what does one offer? Mere distractions and guffaws do not a legacy or contribution make.

It's really just a web version of a high-school popularity contest where the cool, mean kids get to sit together at the cafeteria table and sneer at the outcasts. It's as old as time, of course. There are even scientific studies proving the link between defiance and popularity -- it's known as "evocative gene-environment correlation" -- and every bad boy knows its benefits.

The internet and social media have encouraged an all-too-easy, downright lazy attitude when it comes to others. It's totally possible to be as mean and inconsiderate as one wants, without the consequences of direct, face-to-face contact. That physical distance and inevitable emotional disconnect encourages not only the content creators of the inconsequential and the vapid to be intellectually lazy and unaccountable, but also enables the trolls and the fools to come out in droves.

While it's true that what's permissible on the web is only limited by what is possible (barring the illegal), when one thinks of the brilliant comedic minds who've managed to communicate their message without needing to resort to childish antics, it's downright depressing to watch some current web stars use their immense power for silly, harmful pranks. But then again, if they had used it for good, one wonders if they would have any power or popularity at all.

There's a real paradox in the fact that something that can provide us with limitless information [the internet], has also somehow managed to have become an endless supply and celebration of nothing. Of clever memes and hastily-put-together videos that, sure, manage to elicit a few giggles (depending, of course, on what your allegiances are and who the target is), but, in most cases, do absolutely nothing to advance the conversation.

No one's slowing down and actually thinking, contemplating and pondering. We've barely figured out what's going on around us and we feel this immense pressure to react to it.

So we react to it.

Playfully or seriously, but in most cases, inadequately. All in the name of a mad rush to be first.

And no, it's not about being preachy and about being a sanctimonious, uptight, elitist snob who can't take a joke and wants to barge in and ruin the fun kid's party. It's about accountability, and about media education and responsibility, and about basic decency as human beings. It's about wondering why and if people are consciously choosing to deliberately put out sensationalistic garbage and controversial vlogs, instead of opting for something that can be both entertaining and informative. Something that can be both popular and positive.

Because, make no mistake about it. Stupid is easy. It takes no effort at all to be a dick to other people. It's the easiest thing in the world. It takes no real talent and it's nothing to brag about.

And yet, we are allowing stupid people to become famous for being petty, cruel human beings. We are allowing mediocrity to rise to the top. In most cases, effortlessly.

And those who glorify stupidity and who spew cool-sounding inanities with a devil-may-care attitude and a bad-boy evil grin are just snowing you. Those who plaster and endorse the ugly, the base, the crass, the borderline cyber-bullying, and then dismissively shrug their shoulders and claim no responsibility for the trolling they unleash and the nasty they bring out in people, are not web "personalities" worth emulating. They've got no game. Their game, in many instances, is to simply convince you that they've got game.

And what worries me the most about this trend is the insidious and corrosive effect it has to those who are exposed to it.

Because stupid is contagious.

Lower the level playing field enough, stoop down to the lowest common denominator enough times, and your fans will stoop down right with you. Particularly if the bulk of your audience are impressionable young teens eager to be cool and liked and validated.

I understand that mere minutes are a lifetime on the web, and one can't afford to wait too long, but do we have to produce and share sub-par stuff? And do we have to do it all the time? Is there compromise to be made that can benefit us all? Can we just all agree to raise the bar a little?

There is a way for funny and informative to exist. You can entertain and still edify.

I think of the social satire and astute commentary made by comedians Marc Maron, Louis C. K., Russell Brand. I think of the caustic, ballsy writing by San Francisco columnist Mark Morford. I think of the amazingly informative, yet highly entertaining The Daily Show, the uplifting and inspiring Ted Talks; pretty much all the content one can find on the entire Upworthy website.

I think of the Vlog Brothers; a video blog style channel on YouTube. The Internet-based show is created and hosted by brothers, John Green and Hank Green and is one of the most informative educational channels out there. With the tagline "Raising nerdy to the power of awesome", they tackle climate change, attempt to explain why healthcare costs are so high in the States, try to simplify what's happening in Syria for the layperson, etc. It's serious stuff, but it's done in a light, entertaining way. And they don't insult anyone in the process. Go figure...

There's good stuff out there. Stuff that both manages to communicate something good and entertain at the same time. One doesn't cancel out the other. It's not an either/or proposition.

We just need to sift through the flotsam rising all too often on the top of the information cesspool to get to it. We need to work at it a little. That goes for both those producing internet content and for those consuming it.

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