Walking Away from Purgatory
It ain't Omelas, so why is it so hard?
I deactivated my Twitter account for good last week. I was keeping the account because 6600 followers felt like it meant something, even if my engagement was perhaps a dozen people, many of whom thankfully followed me here before I shuffled off the social media coil.
Why do I mention this? Because there is a growing movement to reduce children’s exposure to social media because adolescent depression has skyrocketed. One reason, in the linked article, is that teens went from spending time with friends, to spending time alone with a screen, sometime around 2010 when social media exploded. Sometimes it’s worse: TikTok’s algorithm was feeding teens pro-suicide videos, and YouTube has annihilated childhood attention spans thanks to that 5-second button to skip ads. That has ruined kids for commercial television, which is fine, but is also making them get bored so easily that they act out just to get some stimulation. I was lucky to get one game of Sorry! out of a friend’s 6-year-old this weekend before they flitted away to play with their iPad. And my nephew wants to disassemble my house and bottle flip every minute of his life. We can’t jump off skyscrapers like a ragdoll physics simulation or swing flaming swords like in Roblox.
My sister is working to reduce their screen time, but it’s difficult when TV can’t keep kids occupied anymore. We’ve depended on Nickelodeon and Saturday Morning Cartoons for decades, and the disruptors destroyed it. We’re going to try going back to nature. I’m going to buy my sister a 3-bike rack for her car, and we’ll drag their little asses out to parks. It’s worked for me, maybe it will work for them. But we can’t expect them to go cold turkey. And we don’t.
I still scroll Reddit sometimes. I’ve been on the “net” since it was Usenet groups and the Bulletin Board Systems that predate them, and I am very comfortable with friends who I know through their text on a screen. But I don’t post on Reddit for the dopamine hit of upvotes. (I leave that to here). Substack Notes turned out to be a big nothing; it’s just Twitter in microcosm. A bunch of writers who fled here were blissfully unaware that Substack is also home to alt-right types, and now they know, because they are being trolled and harassed just like on Twitter.
I am not a free speech absolutist. I think tolerating people who want you dead only helps them succeed. Karl R. Popper’s Paradox of Tolerance, illustrated:
Hatred and populism feed the dopamine habit. You can’t compete with that using nuance. Nuance is a delicious salad. Hate and populism are Taco Bell. Emily Nunn’s incrediblenewsletter aside, Taco Bell is always going to win. (This article by Antonia Hitchens on the Taco Bell Innovation Kitchen was a fantastic read, too.)
I’m terrified that my nephew will get hooked on scumbags like Andrew Tate, or my niece will have her self-image destroyed by influencers. I was a member of the Something Awful forums right around the time they ejected the more toxic members, who went on to create 4chan. There was a shock-jock mentality of humor, where being offended was the only fault, and it quickly became a toxic stew of actual Nazism. I left before that split, because any camaraderie was tainted by the toxicity of “Goon rushing” sites we didn’t like; sometimes this felt righteous, when the target was the Westboro Baptist church, the people who picket soldier funerals with homophobic hate, but sometimes it was misogynistic. And even if I did not participate, I was feeding into it by being a member of that community. So I walked away, only returning to leave a tribute to a member I knew only as Vilerat, who was killed while serving at the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi.
SA was (is) a big community. Shortly before I left, they had their first mass shooter, a man diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome who took a shotgun and went on a killing spree in his neighbor and committed suicide by cop. That should have been a signal that saying “the internet isn’t real” and saying whatever felt the most nihilistic, because it made you feel cool, was not tenable. It’s why kids can call in a swatting and try to get strangers killed; they are “not real.” They are the person who dies when you press the button on the device in the famous story, “Button, Button,” by Richard Matheson (which became a Twilight Zone episode, and a movie by Richard Kelly). But you don’t even get the million dollars! All you get are some lulz.1
Writers often have a surplus of empathy. It’s not universal among us, but a lot of us have it, and I certainly do. I never understood the compulsion to dehumanize the person on the other side of the screen. I consider it psychopathic. On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog? Please. Anyone typing here is human, for now. Soon they’ll be chatbots, but until only recently they were easily spotted.2 They may be a poorly paid person working for a Russian troll farm, but they are human. Sometimes that is more depressing than if they are bots. There's so much hate out there. Capitalism became a religion some time in the '80s (not that Marxism isn't...) and ideologies of all kinds have become self-perpetuating on the internet, where facts are easily distorted or faked entirely.
I’ve read Jon Ronson’s brilliant book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed only recently, afterand others recommended it, but it is the perfect accompaniment to watch as Twitter sinks into the narcissistic mire of a self-proclaimed genius whose career was funded by his dad's Zambian emerald mine as they fled post-Apartheid South Africa. Ronson focuses on the dopamine hit we get as performing along with a crowd of self-righteous people demanding “justice” for whatever today’s transgression might be. Perhaps we feel helpless when politicians can be recorded while discussing hiring hit men to murder Black journalists and complaining that they can’t lynch them anymore, and then fight their resignation. Or Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas collecting money from a right-wing billionaire for decades and facing no consequences. So we take smaller targets, like some jerk on Facebook who said something cruel, so we make them lose their job.
And then we complain when the same thing happens to someone whose politics we agree with.3
So, what am I going to do instead of scroll Reddit all day? Well, I finally got on the This American Life bandwagon. The original podcast? An episode from a few weeks ago, “Off Course,” captivated me. All 3 stories in it are intriguing, but the middle one, about an ocean swimmer who helps save a lost marine creature, was the most uplifting. The last section is about grief, and specifically, bereavement mania, and was stunning in its own ways. Consider me sold.
Lyz Lenz is on Substack and her Dingus of the Week is my favorite thing on the Internet at the moment. It’s one of my favorite insults, and while these dinguses need to be faced as serious threats, they do not operate in good faith, and labeling them as dingii (her plural, which I also love) is effective in making us remember that. They aren’t here to govern, they are here to poop in the punch bowl and then complain about the corn and peanuts.
I’ve never been a listener, always a reader. I do not think audiobooks are reading. I can’t read a book and drive my car, and I like the level of engagement that reading requires. Listening is different. You can listen to someone read a book, it’s a performance, and is a valid art form, but it is not reading. You’ve experienced the book, I won’t dare take that from you. But don’t tell me you read it, and I won’t tell you that I’ve seen a play when I’ve read it, or heard a song when I’ve only read the lyrics.4
I saved another tree frog this morning. Maybe I shouldn’t, because they are very loud as they sing their hearts out for sex. But who am I to judge? And my friend the house finch visited, of course. I saw a brilliant cardinal on my morning walk, glowing like a dollop of magma that bursts from the Earth. And I took a 10 mile ride on Sunday to support Black Run Preserve, one of my favorite places to hike and ride. To keep with the Internet nerd theme, my bib number was 1337 … “leet” or elite, as they once said on the forums before social emerged.
Short for LOLs, aka laugh out loud. Doing something terrible for the quick dopamine jolt of taboo, like a shock jock jerk saying something terrible that they can then say was “just a joke.” Pretty much 70% of social media at this point.
Reddit has become overrun with them; they scan popular comments in big threads and duplicate them to harvest “karma,” so their accounts can be used to promote things.
I am not a “both sides” type, but hypocrisy is not unique to one side or the other. The right likes being hypocrites because it consumes so much of their enemies’ time cataloguing it all. And we never learn.
Feel free to think I’m wrong! I am not the arbiter of such things, nor am I trying to change your mind.