Snow Driving the Internet

In Minnesota, when the snow comes, it rolls out flat on the roads like wedding cake icing. After a time there come the snowplows. These push most of the snow off the roads, leaving a layer of hardpack snow bonded to the tarmac.

Brake early, drive slowly, and you’ll do fine. There is a reason why so many cars in the colder states have bumper dents, but with a bit of patience and a healthy distrust of other people’s intentions you could go a whole winter without hitting anyone.

These odds drastically reduce if you are driving what I like to think of as a “toy SUV”. This is a whole class of vehicles that exists for people who don’t have enough drug connections to need an Escalade, but hate the environment too much to drive a normal car. Good examples include the Jeep Compass, or the Dodge Nitro.

All of these models come (apparently) with an overweening sense of invincibility.

One time I was driving home from work, doing a smidgen under the speed limit, on a slippy crust of snow. At one point, the road becomes one lane, and it was around then that someone in one of those toy SUVs pushed up behind me and started tailgating me. You could almost see the frustration beading on their windshield. Man, they were in a hurry, and the speed limit wasn’t going to cut it. This continued for about a half mile, until the road split back into two lanes.

And then a wonderful thing happened. The baby SUV roared ahead of me on the left, driver gesturing vulgarly out of the window, snow spray spattering my car. They accelerated ahead for a long moment, then fishtailed wildly, lost traction completely, and spun to an eventual slow stop in the middle of a large snowbank. I drove past sedately.

A moment like that happens maybe once or twice in a lifetime. I’m still savoring it, years later. Talk about karma!

Grrr, Other People

The rest of the time, you don’t get to see that kind of immediate karma. But you’re certain to encounter angry drivers every single day, whether you’re on a road trip or just popping round to the shops.

I thought Minnesotan drivers were rude and unnecessarily hostile when I started driving there. Then I moved to the East coast, and I realized — whoa — I didn’t know from hostile. Everyone here drives around in a perpetual rage, as if every driver they see is on the road for the express purpose of thwarting them.

The reason that we act like we’re sitting on cactii when we drive turns out to be fairly straightforward. This article lays out the components that lead to the anger we experience: tension, goal-blocking, unwritten rules, and anonymous offenders.

Tension. Quite simply, driving is dangerous.  Because it is dangerous, it makes us nervous. 

Goal-Blocking. Every red-light that stops us, every driver going too slow, and every poorly marked intersection is one more thing keeping us from our goal.

Unwritten Rules. Most people have their own set of rules that loosely follow the written ones… When someone violates our rules, we get angry.

Anonymous Offenders. Most of the time, the other drivers are unknown to us.  This makes it really easy for us to label them negatively or make assumptions about why they did what they did. 

Sounds Familiar

Is it any surprise that there’s so much vitriol on the Internet? All of the above factors are an unavoidable part of the experience. Some of them are even exaggerated. You might not even be able to articulate your goal in arguing with someone, and there is no place more anonymous than the Internet. There are hardly any rules.

The key to surviving the internet is very like the key to not unnecessarily spinning off into a snowbank. We need to make sure that empathy — not anger or frustration — is the core of each interaction we have. Just like on the road, on the internet we rarely get where we’re going any faster by bowling someone else over.

That’s another person, behind the wheel of that car. That’s a human being on the other side of that screen.