the grandma test

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 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.


13 Responses

  1. sound argument! too bad my grandmother is a 75 year old college student and understands, in depth, about the internets, trolls, and cat macros. hilarious.

  2. Your grandmother’s awesome! Pick a similarly out-of-touch but otherwise sweet old person and use them as your guide.

  3. Heartily agreed, although I prefer the following criteria:

    Will a debate/argument with this person refine your argument on this topic or just degrade into a flamewar?

    Or, if the person is a total moron:

    How long can I amuse myself and others at their expense with literary insults before they catch on?

  4. That’s one of the reasons that I love Ben so much. Because he’s removed from the insanity of my life, he can give me perspective on things that are, ultimately, retarded. In the long run, however, how long will it before Gen X/Y’s (I’m never sure where I fall completely) mores become the prevailing ones? I have this weird notion of the new “axis of evil” being a group of foreign leaders that defriended you IRL. I don’t know how to really describe it, but you probably get the gist.

    BTW, it’s not just deep Southerners that transpose the ‘w’ and ‘h.’ Most of my Southern Virginia family does, as well as many folks from NC. One of the things for which I used to be heavily mocked was saying “do hwat?,” a phrase short for “I’m sorry for I did not fully comprehend your meaning, please repeat.”

  5. Mark – interesting. I’m not the accentologist here, so I don’t know how far it spreads.

  6. I really like that theory. It’s amazing how much your emotions can change if you just stop and try to look at it from an outsider’s perspective.

    btw your grandma sounds boss.

  7. I know it’s not PC, and it’s long since become a cliché, but I think it’s still relevant: arguing on the Internet is like running in the Special Olympics. Even when you win . . .

    Regarding cultural/technical context, I remember a conversation I had with my Spanish teacher in middle school (would have been ’81 or ’82) about video game consoles. I mentioned game cartridges and she thought they worked the same way as cassettes: the game ran off a tape, and when the tape reached the end, you had to flip it over to continue the game!

  8. My grandmother would have reacted the same to the WWW. But she would have been hell on RSVPs, eating etiquette, and other social niceties.

    She could never explain why she got so fussed over mistaking a salad fork for the entree. Perhaps different ages bring different rubber to the road.

  9. Pasquin – her fussiness over salad forks is equally silly. I’m not necessarily touting the wisdom of the elderly: just the virtue of a well-removed perspective.

  10. My head-doctor is really interested in how real the internet is to people. I had to explain a lot of it, but the plus side is that he totally understands all the social intricacies of what it means when someone posts something on their LJ, as opposed to, say, what it means to put something on Facebook or somesuch. There’s all these levels of passivity that really intrigue him. Having someone in your life who looks at your shit that way, the habit tends to rub off. In a good way.

  11. I meant to mention this in the linked post re: “blog”: I totally have several academic articles that reference where the term “blog” came from. Why it became shortened as it did, is trickier to determine, but it’s partly because it’s unique, even if it sounds kind of ugly. (Doesn’t bother me, but I find no fault with your reaction to it.)

    And it’s a sound approach indeed, trying to think of the explanation of webstuff that gets us so worked up to someone not part of that world. It’s kind of sad, though, when it’s something entertaining that I’m trying to explain. My sister doesn’t really understand why rickrolling is so funny.

  12. Oh and: the “hw” thing on wh- words is indeed not limited to the American South. I could probably look it up if you’re really curious.

  13. Erin – I know the “hw” is also British (well, certain parts of Great Britain; such imprecision must be killing you). Other than that, it’d be news to me.

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