“Just one more second,” I say, pushing my laptop away from myself even as I keep typing, “This is really important.”
My boyfriend sighs. He knows, just as much as I do, that there is nothing important about this. Someone said something nasty on Twitter, or someone wrote an article that I have to hate-read, or an old acquaintance just got engaged on Facebook and, good God, was their jeweler blind? It all kind of blurs together, a tepid soup of frustrations or righteous indignations or morbid curiosities that fill and disappoint you like emotional fast food. I give them attention because, on some level, I imagine that there is something very essential that I’ll miss if I don’t. With so much information — so many things to get a rise out of me — it feels impossible to ignore.
Even when there really is something pressing, when it has to do with work or is very time-sensitive, I always accord it more attention than it deserves. There is a whole world that exists when I turn on my computer, and no matter how little tangible impact it has on my real life, I can’t seem to care about it less. Where I used to put a firm, immovable line between my life online and my life with the people I actually care about, there has been a significant amount of bleeding over. Granted, I do work online, so it’s only natural to be more concerned than the average person about what is happening on the internet. But whether it’s your Tumblr follower count, your Reddit karma, your Retweets, or your Facebook friends — everyone has something that captures them much more than it should.
This is only compounded, of course, by the fact that negativity is what other people want from you. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that misery loves company, and that the choice to be critical or unsatisfied is immediately rewarded by likes, shares, and a general sense of “you’re one of us.” Like anyone else, I play into it. Sometimes I cringe when I read my Twitter feed, realizing how many things I choose to judge or complain about when, objectively speaking, I have so little to want for. I have close loved ones, a good job, my health, and my whole life ahead of me. By anyone’s standards, things are going very well, but no one really wants to hear about that. I often joke with friends that I try not to talk about my boyfriend because people are much more interested in the Cathy comic-esque trope of the girl with her bottle of wine, her tub of ice cream, and her Netflix subscription. Even female comedians who are happily married with children in real life — Tina Fey leaps conveniently to mind — play a woman like this in their work. There is something almost cloying about personal happiness. We’re simply not interested in hearing how great everything is going. It’s much more tempting, and arguably fulfilling, to find something to join you in unhappiness, or even to hate.
And when there are people whose actual job description is finding things on the internet to make fun of or be angry about (and there are many of them), it’s difficult to avoid the dogpile. My friend calls it the “internet harvest,” a time when we pick someone to hate collectively, whom we pick to the bone in mockery and collective disdain, and then throw aside. I have joined in more times than I care to admit, adding an impotent voice to a whole community of people yelling at Whatever We’re Supposed To Hate This Week. Internet culture is often one of righteous indignation, and the high social capital that comes with feeling better than someone else. When I tell my boyfriend “just five more minutes,” I’m often responding to some kind of inane argument that boils down to taste level or personal preference.
And in my personal life — as personal as Facebook can be, I guess — the mentality is often the same. There are people I keep in my friends who are actively, negatively affecting my personality. There is a guy my group of friends started heavily disliking last year, for a variety of fairly serious reasons, and while some of us (myself included) kept him on our feeds as a hate-follow, my boyfriend succinctly removed him and never looked back. He told me, and he was absolutely right, that I was cowardly and disingenuous to keep him around. My boyfriend is one of those people who has remained almost virginally untouched by the noxious culture of social media, and whose interactions on the internet begin and end as a light, distracting moment of fun with friends and family who are far away. He reads thoughtful scientific or business articles and shares them, but that’s about the extent of his participation in things.
I think of the time I give to my pathetic internet squabbles, and I feel like an enormous toad.
When I say that the internet ruined love, I don’t even really mean romantic love. Hell, I met my boyfriend on the internet; there is no bigger a believer in our capacity to meet someone online than I am. What I mean is that participating in the draining culture of online posturing and facetiousness actively erodes our compassion, and our ability to tell what is and isn’t important. There is a laundry list of people to whom I give my time, attention, and anger — people who have absolutely no bearing on my actual life. And our time is, in many ways, finite. The time I spend getting angry at an article or mocking a mutual Facebook friend over Gchat is time that I could be laughing with a friend over dinner, curling up on the couch with my boyfriend, or calling my mom to talk about our days. And while the validation we receive from being critical or sarcastic might be intoxicating, it is not love. We might be so immersed in our screens and our profiles that we mistake the two, but when all of the dust settles on our petty frustrations, it’s clear that what really matters is what you have when you turn off your computer.