I just made the mistake of reading all of the comments that followed a Yahoo News article on the legalization of gay marriage in New York state -- thousands of hateful people being viciously mean, woefully ignorant, or both. It reminds me of road rage, those virulent feelings that well up when I am behind the wheel of a car and someone makes the unfortunate decision to drive below 65 in front of me in the so-called fast lane. Is that anger part of my true nature, or are the quiet confines of my Honda the only place I can let it all out? Does the same go for trolls who vomit all over news feeds? Are they really that disgusted with everything and everyone? And does the righteous indignation that fountains out of my fingers in copious, equally hateful responses to their posts mean that I am truly that furious underneath it all as well?
I read these comment clusterfucks all the time; I even invite them into my world by "Liking" Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin on Facebook so I can read the spooky threads from their followers. We might be connecting with our baser instincts and motivations when we engage in online debates, but like it or not, I think these missives offer good snapshots of what people really think. Imagine what the thread would look like if Yahoo News had been around after the slaves were emancipated, or women were given the vote, or Brown vs. Board of Education was settled. Newspaper editors are no longer the only people who choose what opinions from the public will go out on the letters page. When we look back on the early days of legal gay marriage, history students will be able to read post after post from Joe Schmo in Lackawanna who says that two Barneys will never make a Bam-Bam (yes, this was a real entry). History will now be much more transparent.
All of this brings me to comedy clubs, strangely enough, and why they always leave me feeling vaguely uneasy. Simply put, they invite the practice of heckling, which is a more civilized version of website trolling. There is a distance between the heckler and the person on the stage, which makes it easier to shout something. There is also a tacit agreement that performers should be able to take abuse just as much as they dish it out; that is the nature of being a comedian. But it's also why we go to see live comedy: We want someone to cross certain lines and break away from certain norms. And yes, often the comedians say stuff the rest of us are thinking, but were too afraid to say out loud.