Whenever I wonder whether I should get really angry about a feud on the Internet – or even in real life, where many Internet tendencies are born – I use a private standard, which I believe I invented, called the Grandma Test.
The Grandma Test works as follows: could my 85-year-old Southern grandmother understand the nature of this dispute if I brought it up to her in casual conversation?
I’ll give an actual example that has nothing to do with Internet arguments. Many years ago, my parents gave me a Sony minidisc player for Christmas. I started playing with it while visiting them for the holiday. My grandparents were visiting as well, and my grandmother saw me in the living room with the player one morning.
Grandma: Is that one of your gifts?
Me: Yes it is, Grandma.
Grandma: What is it?
Me: A minidisc player.
Grandma: What does it do?*
Me: It records mp3s that I download off the Internet onto minidiscs.
Grandma: It does what?
I explained it to her in detail, because I’m not a dick, but the sheer volume of concepts that I had to unpack in order to speak on it meaningfully – mp3, download, Internet, minidiscs – made it into more of an adventure than I anticipated.
Since then, I realized that many of the intractable differences I felt with strangers on the Internet would seem ludicrously trivial if viewed through the eyes of my grandmother. And 99.9996% of the time, this was because they were ludicrous. They were trivial. If my grandma couldn’t understand why I got so upset, what reason did I have?
Some examples (note that I never actually had any of these conversations; playing them out in my head served to soothe my nerves):
Grandma: What are you so mad about?
Me: Well, one of the mods on the RPG.net forums banned someone for posting a quiz on which movie Batman was best: Michael Keaton, George Clooney, Val …
Grandma: One of the who?
Me: A mod. A moderator.
Grandma: Moderating what?
Me: A forum. A message board. It’s where people go to post messages on the Internet.
Grandma: Messages about what?
Me: About sci-fi and comic books and pretending to be elves and … you know what, it’s not that big a deal. I don’t know why I’m so worked up over it.
Grandma: You look awfully perturbed.
Me: All the new members in this LJ community keep spamming the page with cat macros.
Grandma: In the what community?
Me: LiveJournal. It’s a blog aggregator.
Grandma: It’s a what?
Me: It puts all these blogs in one place. A blog is what people used to call a web page.
Grandma: That’s certainly an unusual name. Why do they call it ‘blog’?
Me: I don’t know.
Grandma: So this is a place you can go on the Internet that activates blogs?
Me: No, aggregates them. Collects them all onto one page.
Grandma: And what is this LiveJournal doing that got you so worked up?
Me: It’s not LiveJournal; it’s … actually, I can’t even remember at this point. Thanks, Grandma!
Grandma: Oh, I’m glad to help. Have a Fresca.
Grandma: What’s got you so mad, dear?
Me: Well, Atrios misinterpreted Glenn Greenwald’s response to Meghan McArdle’s post about … you know what, forget it. I’m better now.
My grandmother isn’t dumb, and she’s certainly not senile. But she doesn’t have the immense contextual investment that many of our generations (Gen X and Millennials) have in the Internet. In certain cases, that’s a good thing. It means she doesn’t take Facebook de-friending, threadcrapping, trolling or fisking as seriously as we do. And being able to reach that sense of perspective from time to time can only be healthy.
Face it: we’re arguing with strangers on the Internet over things we can’t control. It’s like leaving a slip of paper under a rock in the road for the next traveler to find, debating about how hot the sun should be tomorrow. We’re ridiculous people. If the source of your frustration doesn’t pass the Grandma Test, for the devil’s sake let it go.
* My grandmother, a Kentucky native and a lifelong Texan, transposed the h and the w in what, as all deep Southerners do. Try it yourself.