I may always have held a deep, secret suspicion that most people were terrible human beings. But the sheer horror of others’ basest desires, strongest prejudices and most idiotic ideas were shielded from me by a foolproof system of politeness the human race took centuries to perfect. But then came the ’90s and it all fell apart, thanks to what we consider our greatest invention, the Internet.
Before, when someone had a thought it stayed in their head. Now it goes in a Google search bar, which is why when you type in “women are” Google suggests “shallow” and when you search “black people are”, Google tells you they are “rude”. That little white box people fill with raging text is humanity’s shared brain. We can actually read people’s minds, and it turns out they aren’t filled with rainbows and unicorns. Remember when they thought only academics would use the Internet? If only.
It is the phenomenon of YouTube comments that make clear just how awful people are. Who knew watching a saccharine pop video could make viewers want to rape and behead everyone from the singer’s country? Or that every non-anorexic girl was a “fat bitch”? Of course, if you are an attractive female with a talent you are showcasing on YouTube, viewers will be quick to remind you that however fascinating your TED talk, you are actually just masturbatory material. YouTube comment sections are a harvest of the world’s most racist, homophobic, sexist, violent and vile thoughts. They almost make me feel sorry for Justin Bieber, whose adolescent success has inspired fury across continents.
But just who are these scribes of our modern times? I have never once commented on an article or video, nor do I know anybody who admits to having done so. Refraining from insulting strangers from behind a screen is something I take to be a sign of sanity. But these people exist, they are out here amongst us, the commenters with dreams of lynching people and avenging unfunny skits by stabbing. But they don’t just say inane and offensive things – they also create their own shady content. Some take sly photos of us on their phones to later post on the Internet, because now you can’t even enjoy a post-work Snickers on the metro without it being posted online. Just ask the women of London, documented in all their munching glory on “Women Who Eat On Tubes”. It was the Internet that informed me that people read dinosaur erotica, which when compared with the darker recesses of the hidden net begins to seem quite a benign interest, just a touch of T-Rex to spice up a boring commute. There are sites dedicated to galleries of attractive, unaware strangers, hate groups for like-minded thugs to gather, suicide sites that encourage others to take their own lives by glamorising death as a dark, sexy weekend activity, pro-ana and pro-mia collages of skeletal models accompanied by punishing eating and exercising tips. Citizen journalism is a positive thing, freedom of information the glowing mantle of our age. But when the media is handed to the people, it turns into something darker and more exploitative than anything the most embittered, sleazy newspaper hack could come up with. Free speech is sacred, but has unearthed some very ugly truths about the people that surround us.
After all this, the thing that puzzles me most is Internet dating. What has a decade of being constantly plugged in taught us, other than that news is free but accuracy costs, twerking is harder than the Gangnam Style dance, grumpy cats are cute and Beyonce can do no wrong? It has shown us that our fellow human beings are psychopaths, that many harbour sickening secret desires and partake in fetishes we couldn’t dream up in our most twisted thoughts. And yet, meeting people through this medium of hate and fantasy is now becoming the most common way to spark a romantic connection. The Internet should be enough to put you off interacting with another human for life, but there we are, swiping to the right to meet up with a stranger who could well be the crazy guy leaving misogynistic comments on every piece one newspaper publishes, or the deranged girl with an extensive collection of dinosaur erotica. Perhaps it is healthy that the Internet has forced us to acknowledge our darker sides, our sinister desires, to wake up to the reality that people don’t always want the best for themselves or other people. But where do we go from here?