As my platform has grown over the years, I hit “publish” on every article and podcast with mounting terror, because I never know which one will destroy my life for a week, month, or year. I never know which one will be wildly misunderstood or misinterpreted and result in a trashing campaign. Admittedly, I could avoid all subjects of interest and just write long articles about my cats, but that would defeat the purpose of writing. Confronted with that choice, I’d rather give up writing and go raise chickens. So, I try to cover topics that matter to me and to ensure that nothing offensive or vague has slipped into the piece. But the unfortunate fact is that I can never predict how a bad faith person might choose to interpret my work.
This is terrifying for me because I do live with fragile mental health. It used to be that the primary source of my mental anguish came from surviving ex-gay therapy or surviving a shooting. Now, the majority of my mental chaos comes from being a citizen of the internet. I’m fairly convinced now that my catastrophic mental health episode last month was directly related to online communication.
I’ve come to believe that this is because the internet — with its current prevailing business models, user interfaces, and incentives — is profoundly anti-human. Take note that I don’t mean the internet in principle — I love the internet! — just its dominant business models.
Being human means being in process. It means being ambivalent, uncertain, and often wrong. It means believing one thing one day, and another thing the next. It means verbally processing conflicting ideas and assumptions because talking is a form of thinking.
The internet — most notably social media — seems opposed to all of these things on a fundamental level. When correction does come, it comes with a savage intensity that is hard to process. Admitting honest ambiguity or uncertainty about a political cause or ideology can result in ostracization, bad faith takes, and ruthless trashing.
All of this results in a stripping away of the human process. It clamps down on learning and makes me terrified of even writing online, not least because it has dire consequences for my mental health. I’m terrified of being trashed by my own because it could collide with my mental health in a way that is deadly.
More challenging, the inhumanity of the internet might actually make being human on the internet unethical. In an environment where absolutely anything can be weaponized, including earnest questions, an opportunity to learn and process becomes a perilous war zone in which your very ambiguity can be weaponized by bad actors. Is it, therefore, unethical of me to try to seriously engage in the work of Jordan Peterson online, when he has hurt so many trans people? Is it unethical of me to publicly talk to Katie Herzog and Benjamin Boyce about their criticisms of leftist spaces, when such criticisms can be so weaponized by the far right? I really, truly don’t know, and I feel caught between a need to weigh the pros and cons of the arguments on the one hand, and a moral imperative not to harm vulnerable groups on the other.
It’s easy to say “just don’t have those conversations online,” and that might be appropriate for me, but it is becoming increasingly impossible for others. A growing number of people report having no friends, and the internet, which is mediated by gigantic companies with perverse incentives, has become the primary mode of communication for millions of people. This means that the necessary act of processing where we are right and wrong becomes stalled.
The only solution I have, to borrow a phrase from Jaron Lanier, is to double down on being human, even if that feels like the most perilous possible route. It means being vulnerable about my fragility, uncertainties, and experience. It means being open to criticism and a willingness to be wrong. It means accepting the ambiguity in my own mind. It means the willingness to take risks, and the willingness to apologize if those risks turn out to be mistakes. It means, above all, loving myself and having compassion for myself, even when everything about the internet seems designed to dehumanize everyone who uses it.
- Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier
- Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology by Adam Alter
- Jaron Lanier Lecture on Social Media
But that’s just me. What do you think? Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts. I love hearing back from my audience.
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