Sunday 25 March 2018

Are our online emotions virtual insanity?

Rory Nugent blogs for a living, but even he is now wary of the dreaded comments section.

Ice-breaker: Female-centric focus is no barrier to worldwide box office success, as in the case of Disney hit Frozen
Ice-breaker: Female-centric focus is no barrier to worldwide box office success, as in the case of Disney hit Frozen

Rory Nugent

I 'm glad you're reading this on a page. If it were on a screen you may soon be bubbling with indignation and frothing with fiery opinions, not because I'm saying anything particularly inflammatory but because it appears to be our new default emotional position.

Online, our eyes quickly skim over the first paragraph before shooting down to the comment section to see just how outraged (or grammatically challenged) others are, adding our own definitive argument to the mix, down-voting any opposing views, and, following a few refreshes to see how our opinion has fared before moving onto the next story feeling triumphant.

In a pre-digital age, people's opinions might have been called on when number 39 got a rotten new paint-job on their front door, when tutting over a vague foreign crisis at a stiff dinner party, or when being asked if you 'heard about yer one' while wishing the office coffee machine would hurry up. If someone was really moved to comment they could take the ultimate action; get out their best pad and 'write an angry letter' to the paper. Now our virtual pens are always out, ready to attack. We have been elevated to a position of broadcast, and the airwaves are filled with our every passing thought. We sit on our throne (ie have a cheeky scroll through Twitter while on the toilet) and offer our noble opinion on anything and everything from the Ukraine crisis to the latest Kardashian wedding/divorce/ bum outing. The right to reply has become the need. Is the pull and push of opinion on today's hot topic doing anyone any good?

It's not all our fault, the internet needs us to have unfathomably strong emotions. The way we consume news (and viral videos of cats falling over) has changed drastically. The pace has picked up, and so has our reaction time. Each story lives or dies on the promise of briefly distracting the dead-eyed herd of scrollers, and so they're working ever harder to nab your attention before that fatal 'refresh'.

A recent example of emotional hand-wringing was the #Liftgate incident of last week involving Jay Z, Solange and Beyoncé, when B's sister kicked and punched Jay in an elevator after the Met Ball, and it was leaked online to gossip site TMZ. Opinion swung from "wow, what did Jay Z do to deserve that kicking?" and 'hilarious' memes to "hey, if the gender roles were reversed, we'd be vilifying Jay right now guys". What started out as an opportunity for many to spin a quick gag (you could almost HEAR the gifs being created) was then pointed out as actually, very serious, and the bubble quickly burst.

I believe we feel compelled to act because we believe that our opinions really do matter, whether on Nigeria, Lily Allen's new video or Russell Brand's latest outspoken view, but in reality they just swirl around in an endless mix of contrary in-fighting, contributing to the sludge of online bile and bluff. The internet has created the illusion that all opinions are equally valid, giving us a falsely inflated sense of importance. Though I'm loathe to admit it, the head of the UN is probably better informed on what should be done to ease EU-Russian tensions than I, yet I'm happy to fire off half-baked notions.

So we choose the battlefield of the comment box, where false victories are won and virtual enemies vanquished. Online, we are experts in any field, the self-appointed genius solving every problem, the purveyors of truth, the educators of an unwilling audience – in short, we have all become that taxi driver who insists on telling us 'what should be done'.

Perhaps I'm wrong and it's all in good fun? Online conflicts may address a fundamental need in us, one that is safely sated outside of the 'real' world settings. But there is an element of reality to these conflicts – they raise very real emotions. If you have been involved in an online 'heated debate' you'll know the compulsion to keep returning to the battlefield with 'the last word', the determination to feel that final kick of triumph. Having recently fought with an absolute stranger over the over-hyping of Disney's Frozen, I can verify after such skirmishes you end up feeling emotionally exhausted over something so trivial you would never bother discussing it in real life.

Let's not forget that there is a light to all this shade. While our Facebook feeds are scattered with shock, there's always those sunnier stories and heartfelt appeals vying for attention in the stream of viral wannabes. Surely there's no harm in them?

Look at the 'Stephen's Story' appeal, started by an inspirational young man battling terminal cancer, which has raised well over €3.6m for cancer research. But for every story that may make you utter (and I hate this phrase) 'faith in humanity restored' there are millions of others that merely give the illusion of effect whilst actually achieving nothing. These are the campaigns that frequently seek a free-pass from cynicism under the defence of 'raising awareness', but in reality they do little but raise the ego of their elusive founder. It has been termed 'slacktivism', an online campaign designed to give you the feel-good factor whilst achieving little.

Perhaps it's time to avoid knee-jerk reactions and let a story develop before we respond. Our opinions would carry a bit more worth if we became informed before jumping to outrage. I'm not advocating a complete ignorance on world events (though I do hear it's bliss), but declaring that we care deeply about absolutely everything is draining. Pick your battles, ignore the rest, and stay out of that comment section. At least that's my opinion.

Rory runs

First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday’s Irish Independent

First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent

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