I started using the Internet in the late 90s, when I was in my early teens and services like CompuServe, Netscape, and AOL were becoming, if not ubiquitous, at least more common. I remember the thrill of joining AOL chat rooms or message boards: the feeling of connectivity and anonymity, the seduction of having so much knowledge, filth, and entertainment at my fingertips.
No one thought to teach us, teenagers newly loosed upon this digital world, how to be good digital citizens, to understand that anonymity is not justification for behaving in ways we wouldn’t in “the real world,” to know how to distinguish facts from falsehoods. Alas, here we are in the year 2022 and the preponderance of online humanity–about 3.5 billion people–still doesn’t know how to live in the digital age.
Yet never before has it been more important that we learn to do so. On average, Americans spend over 7 hours a day looking at a screen. We go online to get our news, sense of self, and entertainment; to do our jobs; to manage our finances and health; and to establish, then reinforce, our worldview. The power of the Internet to shape us is hard to fathom: the algorithms that bring outsize profits to technology companies are designed to keep us clicking and staring, no matter the cost. And the 2016 election is but one example of said cost: misinformation, outrage, and lies spread faster than truth and nuanced views, and so that is what the algorithms incentivize and spread.
Increasingly, what was once a bunch of online noise–bluff and bluster, hot takes, cruelty hiding behind an avatar–is resulting in real physical harm. Just last week, a butterfly sanctuary in Texas had to close because of threats resulting from its opposition to Trump’s border wall. Public health officials have been resigning in droves, also due to threats. So much radicalization, be it ISIS recruits, participants in the January 6 insurrection, QAnon followers, or believers in COVID vaccine conspiracies–starts, grows, and is maintained online. In the early days, there was a feeling that what happened online stayed online; that is simply no longer the case.
In other words, our on- and off-line selves are already merging, but I fear that they are doing so in the wrong direction. We are inevitably kinder and more open-minded in person than we are online, and yet it’s our online personas that are taking us over. Especially on social media, we say and do things that we simply wouldn’t face-to-face. I was reminded of this recently when I went down a Facebook “Memories” rabbit hole. Take a few minutes to review your old social media posts and just see how embarrassing they are! But from 2016 onward, my posts became angry, hysterical, unhinged. While understandable–the world was becoming angry, hysterical, and unhinged–looking back, I don’t like that side of myself.
Yet it’s that side of ourselves that is creeping into all our discourse. It’s shaping how we vote, think, shop, and act in all ambits of life–with disastrous consequences. Just consider that thousands of people are still dying every day from COVID-19, and yet we no longer seem to care. Every issue, be it climate change or a pandemic or war, is filtered through the online outrage machine, leaving distracted and angry but also feeling helpless in the face of endless crisis.
To be clear, I’m not “both-sidesing” this issue. It’s the far-right driving the vast majority of these threats: they are why Dr. Fauci, for instance, has to have a security detail. But the broader point is that we are all infected by the data and algorithm-driven Internet, by an economy that profits off our distraction and anger. (Check out this great article in Wired: “It’s Not Your Fault You’re a Jerk on Twitter.“) We simply cannot solve the problems we face, let alone construct a shared reality, in this state of mind. Leaving aside how unhealthy all this is–how sedentary we’ve become, how unable to unwind, to disconnect–our futures depend on our ability to create a space for reflection, creativity, thinking, and planning.
In short, we need to remember who we are when we sit down to talk, to act, to think, to create, and to consider the ramifications of continuing to be controlled by a constant flow of online notifications, outrages, and memes. It is this slower, kinder, more reasoned and reasonable side of ourselves that must win out. The future of humanity, not to mention our individual and collective happiness, may well depend on it.