Okay, so now that I’ve looked a bit at how the onslaught of triggery clickbait is beginning to damage my calm, and I’ve looked at my own role in participating, how about them internets then? When did they get so clickbaity and why?
Facebook. Facebook. Facebook.
It used to be not-profitable. Then they added targeted ads. Fine. I occasionally click them, realizing with a mild malaise that they must have some access to my browsing history. Ick. Still, easily filtered as long as it’s not for diet products or plastic surgery or Trump swag.
But then came what seems to be the major dominance of news outlets in the feed. It used to be if I “liked” a news source (HuffPost women, for example), I would occasionally articles in my feed. Then they started to repeat. Then they started to clog the crap out of my feed. And then they got more and more clickbaity. “Ten reasons to wear a fatkini.” “Should you get married?” “What women over 30 need to know.” Then I started following more social justice groups. Repro rights. BOPO. LGBT rights. Political candidates. Feminist magazines.
And while I love my social justice, they are old-school when it comes to spamming. They seem to thing “more is better.” Email, snail mail, texts, and tons of posts. But people can filter repitition. It’s harder to filter clickbait, especially if it’s scary. Our brains gravitate towards scary as a means of self-protection. Advertisers are hip to this–have been since Freud’s nephew invented psychological marketing in the aughts of the 20th century.
My Facebook feed became a veritable clusterfuck of informing, emphatic, repetitive, and often disturbing content. This content is often also propagated by my friends who generally share my beliefs*. (This is a whole other topic. If I have a friend or relative that has beliefs I find offensive, I’ll “unfollow” rather than “unfriend” them. This means my view of the interwebs is even more myopic. Except for my research which doesn’t filter ANYTHING so there’s that.)
No matter how many times I click on “less of this” there doesn’t seem to be less of that. If I don’t see it, one of my friends may post it and my outrage/anxiety/helpessness will be reactivated. We used to use Facebook to connect. Sometimes just on the surface (dinner pics!) and sometimes on a much deeper, more meaningful level. This discourse has been pushed to the margins of my feed by often worthy, but exhausting content. I’m exhausted.
It’s all about the money.
I’m not a scholar on this. I’m sure there are some well-researched think pieces that I haven’t read. But it’s pretty obvious that the foundering news industry has taken to the internet like nutria to the Louisiana swamps. And like nutria, they’ve changed it fundamentally. That’s probably why so many people gravitate to Twitter, Snapchat, and other social media less littered by advertising and paid placement.
We became used to “free” services and forgot how we, the users, are totally paying for our free services by having less and less control over the content.
Beyond that, I think that the sensationalism of the press and its ability to cherry pick content for likely audiences, is causing some major distortion in how we view our worlds. Again, not the expert. I try to do my research on stuff that is social media propagated, rather than corporate-created. But I can’t ignore that the corporations have a huge amount of control over what we see and subsequently react to. While super cool bloggers like Lindy West and Jes Baker write awesomly for Huffpost and The Guardian, they write on topics that have become very controversial (which I think is good – visibility=good) and the corporate media takes advantage of this for their own, often less than savory reasons.
Again, not a bullish attitude for a bullish researcher, but there it is. The internet was gloriously free of major structural power for about a decade. That seems to have passed. I have to watch commercials for a 3 minute clip of The Daily Show. Pinterest, my guilty pleasure, is littered with “targeted ads” and “suggestions.” Their algorithms suck, btw. A tatted up middle-aged female person with a bunch of BOPO and recipe pins does not want ads for “the five worst foods for your waistline” or “summer body” programs. Fuck off.
Instagram is still pretty minimal. The ads are high-end and easy to avoid. Wonder how long that will last?
I don’t pretend to know the nutria-press business model. I suspect it’s built on a pyramid of something worth very little. As we’ve known for many a year, clicks do not = sales. Sales = sales. Also, internet inhabitants are pretty good at abandoning one cluttered, increasingly useless ship for a more helpful one. Facebook has so far bucked this trend, but sooner or later it will die and go to
that social media outlet in the sky some obscure server somewhere.
I don’t have the answer. I realized recently, after wading into the comment fray on a Huffpost video that bugged me, that I was totally suckered. The video, a radical feminist think-piece (I use that word with some trepidation) was designed to piss EVERYONE off. So I got lots of likes, some “go you” comments, and some incoherent but virulent attacks. Blah. And I said to myself, “You know, self, you walked right into that one.” But I could also say, “Well, self, that makes you human because that video was designed to suck you in. You have not yet reached enlightenment.”
*I propagate the crap out of my political/social beliefs, but I generally relegate them to my blog FB Page so the more conservative of my peeps are not spammed into oblivion by my stuff. My main FB feed is for general musing, kid pics, kid humor, whining, and mostly benign stuff. This is a personal decision. It may or may not make me a good FB citizen. It doesn’t really help my mental tidy all that much since I’m still reading all that stuff. Re-posting may be a way of expelling the attendant emotions. That would be interesting research. Nerd.
My life has been hella stressful lately. School, money, health – you name it. It’s been a high stress year. One thing I haven’t been tracking until recently is the effect of my interenet use on my stress level. It sneaks up on me. I have this inner dialogue that goes something like this:
Me 1: Wow, I’m feeling a lot of anxiety after browsing Facebook on my phone for ten minutes. Trump. Reproductive rights. Natural disasters. Maybe I need a break.
Me 2: What do you mean? Do you want to be ill-informed? Do you want to willfully choose to ignore the pain of others? That makes you selfish.
Me 1: I guess you’re right. Maybe I’ll try to thin back some of the political stuff I follow in my feed to see if that helps.
Me 2: Wimp.
Me 1: Well, that’s a little better, I guess. Still pretty hard to avoid triggering stuff. Everyone propogages this stuff constantly. And I like to be informed. And who can resist a “Top 5” list or a “You won’t believe…” headline. Apparently not me. And then when I click on something mildly click-baity I end up on a page with horrible brain-burning click bait that hurts my brain.
Me 2: Yeah that’s really annoying.
Me 1: Totally
Me 1: Okay, now that my external stressors are REALLY HIGH, browsing the internet, checking my email (which I do obsessively), Instagram, the “helpful” news feed on my Iphone can instantly trigger the shit out of me. I feel like I’m waiting for “the shoe to drop” – a typical anxiety thing – and the internet provides an endless supply of shoes. Interspersed with funny stuff, cute stuff, and friend stuff. So I gravitate towards it to 1) confirm my anxiety and keep it going, and 2) to connect with other people.
Me 2: Wimp? Maybe not. Maybe we need a fricking break. Does that makes us weak?
Me 1: Who freaking cares?
Me 2: Good point.
So I did that thing. I spent three ish days with minimal internet. It got progressively harder. I’m back to checking my email several times a day and cautiously checking FB to see if anyone has said anything to me or tagged me (they have). Balance is certainly going to be key. Discoveries:
- Accidentally swipe right on your iPhone and prepare to be bombarded with “Texas woman shoots two daughters”. Fuck. Me. No wonder I’m so triggered all the time. Because I’m reading this crap all. The. Time. I have to figure out how to turn off the news feed.
- The Weather.com app is also less fun than I realized. “Hundreds dead in horrible painful awful flood!” With video! Flashy ads for fictitious loans. Maybe I need to go back to the more benign apple weather app.
- My anxiety is WAY lower when I’m not constantly bombarding it with crap. And checking my email to see if there’s any bad news. And checking the weather, sadly.
- I’m making an effort to reconnect with paper books. I’ve gotten rid of a lot of the ones I can read digitally for free (library) but I have tons of non-fiction that I can peruse at my leisure. That’s been good.
- I’ve also started keeping a written journal, which is weird because my handwriting is TERRIBLE. Unless I write really slow. So I’m writing really slow. And drawing pictures.
- Analog is not so bad. I think I started to slip today because I felt lonely. Because I’m alone a lot of the time. I can just feel it when I’m not bombarded with low level social input.
I give you, the weather. Or something.
This comes at an odd time, since I’m doing a positive psychology for the internet kind of thing for my dissertation and major research area. Still, I think maybe I needed more of the big picture. I’ve started reading Turkel’s Alone Together. I assumed that she was an older person with that “get off my lawn” approach to the internet. Not so much. She is more of a baby boomer, but she’s been tracking online culture since the 70s and she’s a psychoanalyst, so kind of up my alley. She makes some good points. This disembodied, scattered feeling can subsume a sense of connection to the physical world. And we are physical beings. I think perhaps there is a time for diving into the dynamic, challenging, pluralistic online world, and a time to retreat, reflect, and exist as a physical being. I think we ignore the online world at our peril, but we also ignore the physical world, which is highly impacted by the online world, at our peril.
More to come.
This article by Jess Baker is on rolling with the changes in our bodies and the stuff that arises when it happens. Baker, like many other activists, has an evolving relationship with her body and the society/people who have affected how she feels about it.
But I recently had a realization that I think goes a step further. Instead of forgiving my body for gaining weight (or getting sick, or aging) what if instead I asked my body forgiveness for being such a jerk to it for so long? Not in the disordered “my body is a temple so I must only eat raw/vegan/paleo/clean/carbless/sugarless/fatless food and exercise three hours a day for ever and then I’ll be immortal” kind of way, but in the way that we ask our parents for forgiveness because when we have kids we realize what dicks we were when we were young.
I’ve been so damn mean to my body on behalf of society, people in my childhood, rando other people, and even my scared, scarred inner child who is terrified of being visible in the “wrong” way. Don’t get me wrong–I don’t buy into my internalized, patriarchal, fucked-up narrative about how my body is supposed to look to be acceptable and lovable. But that narrative still happens sometimes–especially, like Baker talks about, when my body changes. And even though I forgive myself for internalizing those negative messages, like all grownups, I also have to take responsibility for my actions. When I’m a jerk, I can’t say to my daughter, “I was in a horrible mood yesterday because I had a headache, but you were mildly annoying so it’s okay that I yelled at you and made you cry.” I have to say, “Hey Sweetie, I was super grouchy yesterday and I was mean. I’m really sorry. You didn’t deserve it.”
I owe my body the same kind of apology. For criticizing it, objectifying it, dissociating from it, and manipulating it. For sucking in my stomach instead of taking deep breaths. For squeezing it into spandex shapewear that squishes my organs. For fixating on the parts I feel particularly critical of like my neck or my stomach (as if they’re somehow detached from my brain). For all the unhealthy diets I went on in my teens and 20s (I’m looking at you, Weight Watchers and Slim Fast). For the ways I try to psychologically lock myself away from my body when it “misbehaves” but treat it like a show pony when it’s “better”. And most recently, for freaking out about gaining weight when I was on high dose steroids for three months and chronically ill.
So Baker says this:
“It’s about dismantling the thought that there is a “perfect” body to achieve. It’s sometimes about letting go of the belief that you are nothing more than your body.”
What I mean is I wouldn’t be having these thoughts or writing these words without a body. I need a heart that beats and blood that circulates and lungs that process air to even have a brain that thinks this stuff up. Freud thought that instincts, the source of emotions, originated in the “viscera”–not the mind. And the more time I study emotion and development, the more I see the body’s role in the functioning of the person, rather than the mind’s role in the functioning of the body. Our bodies continue to do all this amazing stuff–breathe, walk, taste, smell, react to our environment–regardless of how appreciative or disparaging of them we are.
So to my body: I’m sorry. Please forgive me for being a dick to you. I was taught to be that way, but I take responsibility for my actions. I am grateful to you for continuing to be amazing even when I treat you disrespectfully. You rock! I will try to remember that my consciousness is part of you, rather than the other way around. Thanks for sticking by me. Love, your psyche.
As I’ve become more involved in activism, both as a participant and an observer, I’ve also become increasingly uncomfortable with the policing of each other that activists engage in. In my corner of the internet, body positive activism, I’m seeing more and more of the “10 Ways to Be an Ally” and “20 Ways We Do it Wrong” articles. I’m seeing a lot of women telling other women that they’re not allowed to talk about feeling fat if they’re not fat (by some nebulous standard that sounds a lot like the same one that goes with being skinny or healthy), or that they’re not being inclusive enough, or that they’re getting activism wrong. This worries me. In my current dissertationy frame of mind, it sounds like defensiveness, not inclusion.
I think it’s incredibly powerful to stand up and say, “No! I do not like how you talk to me. I do not like how you treat me. I do not accept this. I will not disappear.” I am so down with this. But constantly telling other people how they’re doing activism wrong, or doing advocacy wrong is so freaking counterproductive. It’s globalizing an individual experience, and turning it into a set of rules.
It’s like the difference between saying, “Do not ignore or marginalize me. I am here, and I want you to know how I feel.” and saying, “Do not ignore or marginalize me or anyone like me, ever, or you are a shit activist.” From a psychological point of view, the globalizing that goes with the “10 Things” lists seems like a defense. Don’t get near me. Don’t talk to me. Don’t engage with me. Don’t ever fuck up and say the wrong thing. Maybe if I write enough lists of things people shouldn’t do, I won’t ever get hurt.
Human relationships are a series of fuck ups. The taboos that allow us to marginalize and harm others are ways that we protect ourselves from our own capacity to do harm. So it seems like creating a whole new set of taboos, instead of just getting down and talking about the harm, is just more of the same shit.
The problem with this is we all fuck up. We all get hurt. We can’t renegotiate the social norms that hurt us without getting messy, fucking up, and letting other people get messy and fuck up. I like the articles that tell individual people’s stories and experiences, letting the reader relate to them as another human. I’m so sick of the ones that tell everyone how to act and how to not fuck up. This one got to me the other day so I ranted on Facebook:
This article brings up ways that fat stigma is hard to shed, even for those of us who are part of the movement. However, I don’t love that it’s framed as a list of do-nots. We all struggle to accept ourselves as we are, and that means we are not perfect activists at all times. I don’t think I even want to be a perfect activist. I just want to grow in compassion and awareness of myself and others, as I continue to deconstruct the social norms that keep me from being fully at peace with myself. It’s up to each of us to speak our truths to each other and connect as humans. I don’t think the plethora of do-not lists bring us together. I think they freeze us up. I’d rather fall down and learn than stay frozen for fear of breaking a new rule.
Is the author trying to show ways in which we are all still struggling to undo the harm done to us by bullshit corporate/patriarchal norms? Or is she/he saying, “You’d better not do this…” If it had been written as interviews or a first person story, I would be so down with it. Yes! We all still judge ourselves and others in ways that are harsh and unfair. Let’s talk about it! But that’s not how it’s written. It’s written as a warning about how you, too, might be a secret douchebag. And that doesn’t make me want to talk, or share my experiences, or learn, or expand.
I think that’s what it comes down to. Do we want to expand or contract? Do we want to live fuller, more expansive lives (wherein we are likely to fuck up, fall down, get up, and make amends) or stick ourselves in a new little box with a new set of rules guaranteed to keep us from every connecting with another person? The box may seem like it will keep us safe, but we should know by now that it will not. This is often the major difference I see between second-wave feminists in the academy and third and fourth wave feminists online. We’re constantly negotiating boundaries and norms – second-wavers often (not always) see the rules as set. And you get called a gender traitor if you violate them (Hilary vs. Bernie, anyone?).’
This is not an argument that political correctness is evil and unfettered personal expression is good. What gets labeled political correctness is just new emerging norms that take marginalized people into consideration. Considering other people’s feelings and talking about them and taking personal responsibility when we hurt or get hurt is good.
When you were little, did your parents ever tell you that you should have known better? Well, it turns out, most of the time, you couldn’t have. A lot of the stuff we learn to do as adults — empathize, abstract, predict — kids can’t do that stuff. Their brains grow those capacities in the teen years. So we learn to feel retroactive shame for being human kids, instead of being gradually introduced to concepts that will one day make sense to us. That’s what some of this stuff feels like to me. I hate seeing the BOPO movement eat itself, but I’m afraid of the direction it’s headed in. So many other beautiful movements have dissolved into infighting and chaos. Can we find another way? Can we inquire instead of judge?
As a culture, we are just starting to deconstruct a whole lot of harmful nonsense around gender, bodies, and race. THIS IS MESSY. If it’s not messy, we’re not actually doing it. Can I tell you how many times I’ve tripped over my own privilege as a teacher? So. Many. Times. Face-planting is part of the job. All I can do is try to make amends and do better next time. I can’t avoid the next landmine because I don’t know where it is. But it’s still my responsibility to clean up the mess when I do something unintentionally insensitive.
What if we lived in a culture where we took responsibility for speaking our own hurt and anger and drawing our own boundaries? What if we were allies to those who need help without becoming caricatures of the very ideas that we’re trying to change? What if we just rolled up our sleeves and talked and listened and yelled and cried and hugged? What if we got messy instead of militaristic? Messy is scary, but that’s where the growth is.
Instead of saying, “You’re not inclusive enough!” What about saying, “I feel invisible when you ignore my body type/color/gender expression, and it hurts.” And what if I said, “Holy crap, I’m so sorry! What can I do to help?”
So Donald Trump. Ugh. I hate that this guy even takes up any of my brainspace. But I think the rhetoric he’s using, and encouraging his followers to use, is really relevant to my research. I examine people being pretty nasty to each other online. Not exclusively – there’s a wide range. But still, people say stuff online that they might not say to a stranger’s face. A lot of people see this as “disinhibition” – that the relative anonymity of the internet removes the need to be civil, and reduces us to our baser selves. There’s some truth in this. But there’s also a flip side – that by communicating textually we have to be more revelatory by necessity. We can’t use facial expressions, gestures, or body language to communicate–only words. So we have to be clearer and more direct to be understood.
Lindy West wrote a great piece for the New York Times on how Trump supporters feel this sense of liberation when Trump says what they’re thinking. So when Trump says something racist, or sexist, or makes fun of a handicapped person, he’s saying something that they’ve thought.
Here’s the thing. We all have ugly thoughts.
Brains and Impulse Control
Our brains are weird places, and we don’t have a whole lot of control over our thoughts. People with PTSD understand this particularly well, but it is true for everyone. But when I have an ugly thought about someone based on a stereotype I’ve internalized, I don’t feel angry that I can’t say it out loud to the person who I’m judging unfairly. I don’t feel persecuted because society prefers I avoid being a rampant asshole. Instead, I feel ashamed that I’m passing judgement on someone I don’t know. Then I try to examine the assumptions or internalized schema (stereotypes) the judgement was based on and unravel them a little bit. Over a lifetime, this makes me less judgmental and more compassionate. It also makes me more aware of the ways I judge myself on behalf of a skewed power system and let some of that shit go.
Robert Reich posted this morning about Trump and his supporter’s violent rhetoric. Donald Trump is a textbook narcissist – the particularly virulent kind with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. One of the hallmarks of narcissistic personality disorder is a persecutory complex. So when Trump makes it sound like he and his supporters are victims of the violence at his rallies instead of the instigators, it fits right in with his world view. This is also apparent when he incites hate and bigotry towards Muslims yet claims it is because of some imagined impending threat. At the heart of bullying, of bigotry, and of narcissism is fear of helplessness. Thus the violent see themselves as victims, and their victims as violent. It’s terrifying to see this being played out on a national stage. Not only must we ensure that this man never becomes president, we must strengthen and enforce our laws against hate crime, hate language, and hold people who incite racial and religious violence accountable for their actions.
Being human can mean one of two things. We can use our intellects to rationalize acting on all our impulses. Our hindbrains are not pretty. All they care about are safety and survival, at whatever cost. They are not interested in community, connection, or love. They serve an evolutionary purpose, but allowing them, or as Freud would put it, the Id, to run the entire show makes us lizards with vocabularies.
The other option is using our intellect, our higher brains, to mediate the impulses from the id and make decisions that take into account the past and future–something the id/hindbrain can’t do. Psychological repression (or Suppression in Ego Defense language) is not a bad thing. It is not persecution. We all have the ability to mediate between our impulses and desires (id), and the expectations of society (superego). That’s what the ego is for. (Again, this is in Freudian/psychodynamic terminology. Substitute terms of your choice.)
Sometimes my kid makes me CRAZY angry. Kids are narcissists because their brains haven’t fully developed and they lack experiences. So sometimes kids are assholes. And part of me wants to be an asshole right back. I would be really good at it. I know the most hurtful things to say. I’m physically stronger and could inflict damage. I don’t. Not because I might get in trouble for it, but because I love my kid and doing any of those things to her would be cruel, abusive, and damaging to her own psyche and to our relationship. So I suppress the baser impulses and try to deal with her in a more productive way. It’s not easy, and it’s not fun, but her mental health is more important than my fleeting impulse to be mean. This is called parenting.
When millions of people in our country are chomping at the bit to release all impulse control and are calling it freedom, we have a big problem.
Thus Spake the Internet
So why am I thinking about how this relates to my research? On the surface, the Trump disinhibition phenomenon and the Online Disinhibition Effect look the same. Trump says it’s okay to be a violently racist asshole, so people are being violently racist assholes. The internet allows people to hid behind screen names so they can be assholes more freely if they want.
But on the internet, they must use words to do so. Not only that, but they must use words in a forum where everyone else uses words too, and can disagree with them with the same level of anonymous freedom. And then these people all read each other’s words. So while the comments section on YouTube may not look like a civil, thoughtful conversation, it is still a conversation between people with differing viewpoints in an environment where words are the only recourse. No yelling, hitting, pushing, guns, or other means to escalate beyond name calling.Interestingly, I rarely see direct violent threats on the forums I study. Occasionally I see indirect threats. But it’s still all just words.
I believe that intentionally exposing ourselves to alternative viewpoints comes from the developmental drive. Developmentalists (and I’m one) believe that we naturally move towards more adaptive behaviors and self-awareness as we age. When you read opposing viewpoints, you become aware that they exist. Your thoughts and feelings about the topic are not universally agreed with. It may take a while, but you’ve exposed your brain to this stuff and you can’t un-expose it.
I believe that your unconscious is driving you to become more aware of your impulses and integrate them consciously. Huge social progress has been made in the last decade because people eventually came to see and then accept marginalized groups who made themselves visible on the internet. Were they welcomed with open arms and fresh puppies when they violated social norms to become visible? No. But over time, knowing your cousin or aunt or friend’s dad was gay became normalized, and it stopped being such a thing. Yes, we still have a long way to go with LGBT rights in this country, but if you look at where we were before the internet (Don’t ask don’t tell, no marriage, no adoption rights) it’s pretty stunning.
People having conversations on the internet, regardless of how icky they may seem, is a totally different behavior than letting a raging narcissist with a pulpit tell you that it’s okay to be a violent asshole, and then acting like a violent asshole.
My suggestion? If you have the stomach for it, provide the opposing viewpoint. Retweet, repost, or get into a conversation. Your homophobic Aunt Ethyl may not like it, but over time, it may change how she sees the world.