One of the most reliable rules of the internet is “Never read the comments.” And it’s true. Reading the comments on almost any article, video, or statement of any kind will destroy your belief in the possibility of human communication or discourse. My favorite recent example is this one, in which the author asks his fellow liberals not to credulously pass on false or misleading stories from bad, clickbaity sites. The article has almost two thousand comments, far more than any other piece on that blog, and they are unbelievable. Either the commenters clearly didn’t read the piece they’re replying to, or they’re loudly insisting that there shouldn’t be a difference between fact and opinion. Frequently both at once. All on a short piece about being reasonable and sensible.
Why is that? Why is the greatest communication tool in human history much better at pointless abuse and wankery than at anything resembling communication? The problem is not with our technology; it exists, as the saying goes, between the chair and the keyboard. Our own wiring creates the ugly impulses that ruin our attempts at conversation. A lot of those impulses come down to two nasty facts about human nature that we’re going to have to confront: bullying is fun, and outrage feels good.
1) Bullying is fun.
For all the time we spend talking about bullying, decrying bullying, trying to prevent bullying, we’re crap at addressing why people bully each other, kids and adults alike. We do it because it’s fun. It is enjoyable to insult someone, to harass them, to elicit a reaction from them, and to get attention for doing so. If we fail to address that fact, then we’re just talking about bullying the way crappy D.A.R.E. programs talked about drugs. Tons of kids wondered “If drugs are so harmful, why would anyone even do them?” and got patted on the head for asking that question. Later on, they found out that drugs feel great, and had no way of engaging with that because it had never been mentioned.
It’s one of the reasons that bullying is so surprisingly bipartisan. Right-wing bullying is basically an industry at this point, with legions of trolls convincing themselves they’re the underdogs striking back at an imagined leftist orthodoxy. At the other end of the spectrum, Tumblr is overflowing with hate blogs that exist solely to document reasons a reader should hate and attack a specific other Tumblr user, because teenage girls are always at the cutting edge of bullying development. Almost all of these cite ostensibly leftist reasons why so-and-so is a horrible person who deserves to be attacked. They’re racist, they support abuse, or they drew pictures of the red lion pilot kissing the black lion pilot instead of the blue one, which means they’re racist and support abuse. Jon Ronson famously analyzed a typical Twitter tempest in a teacup, in which right-wing and left-wing bullying came together to damage the lives of every person involved. Who says cooperation is impossible?
2) Outrage feels good.
It feels great. People have actually measured how much faster you’ll spread and react to outrage than other things, even cute kittens. Let that sink in for a minute: think about how much the internet loves cat pictures, and realize that according to the data, it loves anger even more than that. We do it because it feels good. We say that we’re clucking our tongues about how awful it is, but we’re lying. Intense emotion connected to a feeling of moral superiority feels good.
There are many, many sites that make their money on outrage. They create fake or misleading headlines designed to trigger outrage, just enough for someone to forward it, like it on Facebook, or click whatever button the site has monetized. No matter how many exposés are created about these sites, no matter how many social networks shift their rules to try to break their business model, it keeps working, because the outrage-reward connection is simple and immediate. Feel a combination of anger and moral superiority, get a dopamine hit. That simple.
The above image is one of those things that’s funny at first, then sobering. Those two neurotransmitters are how your brain experiences pleasure. That’s it, that’s all. The most effective antidepressants on the market work by affecting the behavior of those two molecules, mostly serotonin. And chemicals have no morality. You can be the most straightedge teetotaller in the world, but heroin will still make you feel good. By the same token, you can be the most decent and forgiving human being on two legs, but if feeling superior to someone else still triggers a dopamine hit in your brain, it still feels good.
What can we do?
The problem with this kind of article is that most people assume the flaws I’m describing apply to other people, but not to them. They’re wrong. You’re wrong. Bullying and outrage feel good to you, whether you like it or not. You are not immune, you are not the one special case. Fortunately, you can (and perhaps already do) keep those flaws from becoming externalized. We can’t change how our brains function, but we can control our behavior. We might still have terrible habits in our own heads, but as long as they stay in there, we’re not making the world around us a worse place.
One way is to introduce an interrupt between your brain and your typing fingers. If you’re about to say something, say it out loud first. If you’re about to forward something, don’t. Read it and read about it first. Break that fast stimulus-response loop and you’ll instantly come across as a more sober-minded and thoughtful person. Maybe get addicted to that feeling instead.
In more extreme cases, you may just want to take a large step back from social media entirely. Lots of people do, and most of them report feeling much better, and having a more sane view of the world.
The thing to remember is that your brain is a flawed tool, a computer made of meat that’s running an OS a thousand centuries old. It has bugs and weird exploits built into it, and there are people actively trying to use those exploits to make money off you. Let that be your guide to skepticism, and a lot of things get easier.
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