I am old enough to remember when the Internet was a largely useless place for most people. My college dormmates would sit patiently, waiting hours for image files to download in large ribboned chunks, in hopes of something salacious appearing. If the image was mislabeled, they could find that they’d waited a good twenty minutes for what they thought was a bikini pic of Kathy Ireland but turned out to be a photo of Macho Man Randy Savage. It was like the whole worldwide web was a bit of a silly prank, a place where we spent small swathes of time, where we used PINE to check our email every three days or so.
Over the years, it spread like a creeping ivy. A few innocuous vines at first, and then it was everywhere, so ubiquitous and suffocating that no part of our lives was untouched. Recently, my friend’s kitchen faucet stopped working because it was trying to unsuccessfully connect to his WI-Fi. Rand and I almost missed a connecting flight a few months back because neither of our phones were working. Several of my light switches don’t work, because I can’t figure out how to make them talk to my phone.
I don’t want to be on the internet all the time, and yet we’ve created a world where it’s almost impossible to not be.
We’re constantly inundated with content – videos and hacks and recipes and ads and articles, all in an endless stream. Everyone expressing an opinion loudly, creating posts that they hope will go viral and newsletters that we all sign up for. It is vast and infinite and there is no fucking end or beginning. We simply scroll forever. It is nearly impossible to go online without seeing hate speech and images of violence, of dead bodies, grainy video footage of someone actually being murdered, all of it appearing without our consent. What started as a fun place for us to geek out has become an 8mm snuff film.
Post by @theeverywhereistView on Threads
We yell at one another, which feels horrible, but it’s a horrible that we control and it’s easy. (And of course, some people just rank high on the Dark Triad test and enjoy saying terrible things – I assume they’re having a fucking blast.) It is virtually impossible to express any opinion where someone won’t tell you that you are a piece of shit. Algorithms reward rage and anger and vitriolic engagement and horror. It is very important to be extremely angry, to express it loudly, to make sure others know as well. The internet has incentivized this, livelihoods are tied to it. There is an inherent hypocrisy in of all of this – much like Capitalism, the Internet subsumes all critiques of itself. I cannot rage about how shitty things are online without raging about it online. I want you to read this post. I would like you to sign up for my newsletter. You should also buy my books. To be a working writer with any semblance of a soul is to be a hypocrite.
Congratulations Internet, you win.
I recently posted that we didn’t all need to be political commentators. That it was okay to sit back and acknowledge that perhaps some situations were complex and sad and not everyone needed to weigh in with their hot take. I was yelled at and admonished by people on both sides of an ideological divide, called both an antisemite and a Zionist, told to shut the fuck up and that my silence made me complicit. I suppose that was a pyrrhic victory, or perhaps more aptly, there is no winning. This is the dynamic we’ve created: engagement requires an emotional and mental cost, opens us up to a litany of abuses. But to disengage – or even to change the subject – is either impossible, or makes you subject to those same abuses.
There are days when I am sick of all of it. Not because I don’t care about the dead or because I am not horrified every day by what we do to this earth and to one another, but precisely because my heart is so goddamn broken that I don’t have the energy to be called a cunt who deserves to die on top of all of that.
I can’t believe I need to say this, but: You do not need to shout into the social media void to prove your fealty to a belief or a cause. You do not need to stare at horrific images or read awful stories if it becomes too much. Looking away from gruesomeness is not disrespectful to the dead. It does not mean you are less true to your beliefs. Knowing your limits does not make you a weak person.
I’ve found that the most meaningful action I’ve taken in these horrid times has been to reach out to my friends, to text them or talk to them in person and see how they are, to let them know I love them. The statements “I don’t know” and “I don’t understand” and “I’m thinking of you” have seen a lot of play these days. It has mattered far more than a pithy Facebook update, or a post, or a flag overlaid on my profile picture. Demanding that more people add to the noise – pressuring them to post about issues when they might be better off listening – is a horrible, horrible model, one that just fuels the hate engine that so much of the Internet has become.
The world – both online and off, can be an awful place, and it is okay to do what you can to bear it all. To put down your phone and go for a walk. To reach out to a friend. To share a silly meme. If you are able to look away, even for a second, online or off, I would tell you to enjoy that luxury and that privilege. Because that is the one reality of all this ugliness: none of it is going anywhere.
(Header image is a shout-out to the Panflute Flowchart.)