INTERNET ICONS: THE SMUG SKIM-READER

As one who defaults to an ironic mode of expression, I'm used to being misunderstood on the Internet, particularly by academics, well-meaning liberals, and denizens of the far western reaches of the Empire. But sometimes the misunderstandings are so bizarre, the reactions so out-there, that I have to wonder if the reader has suffered irrevocable damage to his reading comprehension -- perhaps in a Tweeting accident. In these cases, the reader hasn't just missed the irony, but has also inserted some weird hallucinatory content all of his own. This content alone forms the basis for his response, which is invariably self-satisfied and dismissive.

This has happened often enough that I've seen a clear pattern emerge. I now realise that, far from being simple imbeciles, my comprehension-impaired correspondents are examples of a distinguished and powerful Internet type: the Smug Skim-Reader.

SSRs are the elite intellectual warriors of the Net. Faced with a wall of text that would make a lesser mind tl;dr, SSRs have the skills and the ambition to conquer it. And they make it look so easy. Simply by skim-reading the first couple of paragraphs, and then maybe skipping to the end, they can quickly match any text to an existing pattern they've been trained to hate. They then declare this pattern to be the content of the text, and smugly denounce it.

In an Internet full of fanboys and shambling mediocrities, SSRs are the John Galts among us, Randian heroes who can impose their own individual will on the world. While the rest of us have to struggle with other people's difficult opinions, SSRs possess the rare ability to look at a text and see only what they put there themselves.

This ability is often most highly developed among academics, whose first impulse upon encountering any text is to find an excuse not to read it. In fact, given the volumes of indigestible knowledge they must profess to master, smug skim-reading is a labour-saving necessity for any serious academic careerists. I became well-practised at it myself during my time in the ivory tower -- but never as well as the real pros. I still count myself privileged to have witnessed an email exchange between two distinguished professors, who each expertly failed to read a line the other wrote, over countless messages and several months. In this time, lesser beings might have broken down and come to some accommodation, but these two were SSRs par excellence. And they each left the discussion with their dignity intact -- as proudly ignorant of the other side as when they joined it.

But academia being the fringe activity it is, it is only with the advent of the Internet that the SSR has truly come into his own. In an age of information overload, SSRs possess a decisive weapon: the ability to process and produce authoritative-looking comments on vast quantities of data. And even though they mostly pronounce judgment on their own hallucinations, their reach and authority convince other people to believe these hallucinations are real. In this way, people whom in another age would have been considered deluded cranks now find themselves able to command the power and attention they deserve and crave.

Look at almost any Internet message board, any online community, and you'll find that the acknowledged "king of the board" will be an SSR. And any time a new thought invades the group consciousness, you'll find the rest of the group looking anxiously towards him, waiting for him to sift through the text with his inviolable mind, and deliver his smug and reassuring summary.

So let's hear it for the Smug Skim-Reader. Tirelessly skimming what we fear to read, protecting us from new and harmful thoughts, helping the troubled fanboy sleep at night, and bringing comfort to the comfortable. Society as we know it couldn't function without him.

HOME OPINIONS GAMES REVIEWS FULL INDEX ABOUT