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It's All Just Water

In her fabulous book of essays, Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino describes the perils of our current internet culture:

There was no limit to the amount of misfortune a person could take in via the internet … and there was no way to calibrate this information correctly - no guidebook for how to expand our hearts to accommodate these simultaneous scales of human experience, no way to teach ourselves to separate the banal from the profound. The internet was dramatically increasing our ability to know about things, while our ability to change things stayed the same, or possibly shrank right in front of us. I had started to feel that the internet would only ever induce this cycle of heartbreak and hardening - a hyper-engagement that would make less sense every day.

Since dropping off Twitter my time and energy have multiplied. My days are like a TARDIS, bigger on the inside, and while I can’t quite grasp why this should be so, I’ll take it.

My reading has sent me down a path. I’m trying to understand why I hate “the internet” while also deeply appreciating it. The book How to Do Nothing aimed me at Trick Mirror which sent me back in time to find Amusing Ourselves to Death and now I’m hot on the trail of Brave New World, an old book that seems pregnant with new meaning.

Tolentino’s essay arrived when I needed it. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the limits of human compassion. About my limits. I’ve heard people say, “Fuck the antivaxxers. If they die, they die,” and there I was, nodding along. Some people are too stupid to live, I thought to myself. And I’m done caring about people too selfish to care about anyone but themselves.


It seems to me that beneath the calm seas of our daily lives there’s an undercurrent of disappointment, fear, and rage. I doubt I’m the only one who feels this way. We spend a lot of time looking at one another through crooked lenses online. And I wonder: what if we can’t handle “what’s happening” everywhere? Our humanity makes us vulnerable to the emotional blowtorch of unchecked online discourse. Most of us hold our hearts open, at first. But after it all becomes too much, scar tissue forms where our compassion used to live. We harden up, and we become people who are capable of saying, “if they die, they die” without so much as a flinch.

When I say to myself I hate the Internet my problem isn’t actually the Internet. The Internet is just a handy mechanism for moving bits of data through wires. Streaming a movie? Paying a bill? Emailing a friend? Enjoying community on Posting an essay? There’s a lot of good to be had by moving bits of data around! But then there’s the other internet. The one that hardens my heart and that I want nothing to do with.

So how do we delineate the good internet from the bad one? Why do these concepts feel mixed together? A poisoned well comes to mind. It’s hard to think of something like photos from a high school friend as being poisonous. And the thing is - they aren’t! The poison is in the toxic incentives, the vicious trends, the algorithmically supported hate and outrage and sensationalism. The healthy and the toxic are mixed and were told we can’t have one without the other.

We wanted water! Facebook promised water! But we choked on it. And when we choke, we’re told that we’re imagining things. Don’t be so dramatic, ya’ll. Just change your privacy settings and stop following the meanies.

Behind every “gear” icon is the lie that you can fight the system from inside the system. The gear icon is a fidget spinner for those who are eyeing the fence. The social media companies want to give you the illusion of control. But what you want is the very thing they will never give you. You’re only useful to them when you’re poisoned.

We act as if these things are fixed or fated, but there’s no reason why the good internet should have to incorporate aspects of the toxic internet. The poison is addictive, I suppose, and that’s why it’s included. So long as we tolerate or ignore the poison in our well, we’ll continue to get sick. Maybe most people will ignore the symptoms. In the end, some of us will pull up our stakes and go somewhere else.

Somewhere like here.

Leaving social media is helping me shake off my cynicism and negativity aimed at online spaces. Maybe I’d gotten so used to being poisoned that I was looking at all internet discourse as dangerous. But that’s not true. There’s no reason why we can’t build, support, and celebrate unpoisoned wells.

Pre-2008, unpoisoned wells were a thing. It’s why we loved the internet to begin with, right? The internet was a place where you could make friends unhampered by the limits of proximity. The internet opened your eyes to ideas and perspectives unavailable in your small corner of the world.

And we can do it again.

It’s a relief to sit here, put my feet up, and look around. To acknowledge that the good internet is still here. Certain bits of data are a pleasure to move around. A blog post? An RSS feed? An email? A video chat with someone you know?

There’s no poison here, I tell myself. And it’s okay to relax.

It’s all just water.