Who doesn’t love the righteous feeling that comes from effortlessly persecuting someone else?
The Internet has done amazing things for humanity. Instead of scraping a few words into a block of stone or spray-painting a hapless wall, we can now graffiti online to our hearts’ content. What is social media, after all, but an electronic simulacrum of those words and phrases Roman soldiers carved into Egyptian monuments in order to while away a boring few hours of guard duty?
While Wikipedia and a few other sources attempt to enlighten us with facts and knowledge, most of us know that what we really want is entertainment. Who cares about learning calculus online when we can watch free porn, glance at stories about how vaccines give our children autism, and stare happily for hours at funny cat GIFs.
Best of all, because scandal and sensationalism travels literally at the speed of light nowadays (well, nearly…) we can delight in the fact that rarely a day goes by without some person or group being “outed” for our collective pleasure.
The moment this happens, we don’t look for corroboration or consider the possibility we might be being manipulated; no, we pile in with our own “opinion” (actually just a repetition of whatever meme we’ve been fed) and we compete with our anonymous online friends to raise the temperature until, within minutes, we’ve got an online lynch mob eager to destroy the person completely.
This is the real value of the Internet: the chemical thrill it provides us as we shred some other human being whom we’ve never met and about whom we know nothing but the little we’ve been fed by those who created the sensation in the first place. Our tiny ape-brains absolutely adore the neurochemical jacuzzi that bubbles within us as we are flooded with righteous anger and a sense of our own omnipotence as we type our own excoriating declamations and then press ENTER to add them to the whirlpool of frenzy.
The fact that we’re destroying another human being’s life is of no consequence; all that matters is our temporary sensation of being powerful. A feeling that, just for once, albeit briefly, we actually matter.
One could argue that people with satisfying real-world lives don’t feel much need to indulge in virtual orgies of destruction. One could perhaps hypothesize that those drawn to participate in online lynchings are mainly the emotionally inadequate, the ignorant, the intellectually stunted, and the psychologically damaged. One could very well be correct. But it doesn’t matter because the Internet as we know it in the West depends mostly on advertising revenues and advertisers want to go where the eyeballs are.
And the eyeballs are firmly glued to whatever happens to be the sensation du jour.
As the public evisceration of someone is generally sensational, the revenue model of today’s Internet encourages us to indulge as often as possible and as enthusiastically as possible. Because that’s how Campbell sells its soups, how McSlop sells its burgers, and how Colt sells its small arms.
So what can we do, assuming we’re the sort of people who harbor absurd beliefs about trying to be decent to each other and about making small positive contributions to the world around us rather than being focused on tearing things down just because it’s easy to do so?
Turns out, the answer is actually quite simple.
We can stop being drawn in by silly trivial things.
We can stop watching television because most programs are basically electronic sewage pumped directly into our homes. We can stop reading newspapers because they are for the most part mindless sensationalism. We can stop listening to the radio because, with the exception of France Inter and the BBC World Service, it’s all just empty noise. And we can stop caring about silly things written by people who are either too young or too ignorant to write less silly things.
In short, we can step back from the effluvia of contemporary life and focus on the things that really matter: our families, our friends, ourselves. When we disconnect from the umbilical cord of sensationalism we’ll be less fearful, less misinformed, less helpless. We might even start reading books by authors who know something about their subject matter, instead of relying on memes and blogs and spurious articles in glossy magazines.
(Yes, there’s an irony in the fact I’m using social media to recommend we detox from social media. But I go where the people currently are.)
The hardest part of stepping back from the empty noise that comprises 98% of our usual intake is learning not to care what everyone else is doing, saying, and thinking. We’re a primate group species so naturally we feel a strong urge to be part of a group. Being “cut off” from the incessant noise of quotidian discourse feels uncomfortable at first, like we’re missing out. We no longer respond correctly to the new meme, or know what some absurd new word is supposed to signify. This can be uncomfortable at first.
But, if we persevere, we begin to notice something important: all the folk still plugged into the daily torrent of fear and sensation aren’t happy. Their brains are saturated with poison. Meanwhile, we’re beginning to feel a little bit better about ourselves and about the world in our immediate vicinity. We’re starting to feel more like we can influence things in our own lives. We’re not feeling as empty and as desperate and as angry and as afraid as we used to.
In short, breaking free enables us to become real human beings again, capable of thinking real thoughts rather than mindlessly chanting whatever memes and clichés we’ve been fed.
And wouldn’t that be at least worth trying?