An article about how to make a great chocolate cake popped up in my Facebook news feed while I was cooling down on the treadmill this morning, and I couldn’t help be reminded of why the Internet can be such a terrible place. I’m not talking about the chocolate cake, by the way. There’s nothing wrong with the cake they wanted you to make. The photo of it looked incredible, and I would shove a slice of it directly into my toothy word launcher without hesitation. I’m talking about one of the comments that accompanied it.
“Hmmm Yum Yum Yum Yum. Where can I buy this? I wanna eat”.
It might seem innocent enough, but for me, that specific comment is a prime example of why the Internet, created for humans to communicate with each other, can be the most frustrating venue for communication. Why? Because this is not how people speak to each other in real life.
For example, if a waiter sauntered up to your table and asked you how your meal was so far, and you answered with “Hmmm Yum Yum Yum Yum. Where can I buy this? I wanna eat”, he would either laugh in your face, or slowly backpedal to the hostess’s desk and dial the police. If your register associate at the supermarket looked at your basket and asked if you were making chicken soup tonight, and you said “OHHH YUMMY YUMMY IN MY TUMMY GIVE ME SOMMY!!!”, security footage of the transaction would be sent to every psychiatric hospital in a fifty mile radius, just to make sure a patient wasn’t missing at morning roll call. Unless you are a child or have some kind of developmental disability working against you, being a fully-functional adult and bypassing every conversational norm by instantly barfing out the first handful of words your synapses manage to string together is frowned upon in real life, but on the Internet, it’s just another beautiful day in the neighborhood.
What I’ve found is even more interesting is that people who behave like that on the Internet rarely, if ever, behave like that in real life. Everybody reading this has at least one embarrassing family member on Facebook who over-politicizes every conversation, and posts white trash memes featuring a Minion with its arms crossed throwing tantrums about welfare drug testing. Your news feed is regularly flooded with notifications about Uncle Sassafras commenting “TRUMP 2016” on kitten videos, and reposts of highly refuted links about Subway bread being made out of yoga mats, but when you show up for a big family dinner, Uncle Sassafrass is awesome. He doesn’t crop dust the dining room with his obnoxiously stalwart “old man on the Internet” beliefs. He cracks a beer with you, grumbles about how bad your football team is performing, and recites a couple inappropriate jokes that have everybody blotting tears of laughter with Mom’s holiday napkins.
Why do perfectly literate, sentient, regularly socialized, decent human beings transform into incensed, frothing, willfully ignorant, tact devoid socio-political bulldozers the minute they log in? In my opinion, it’s fear. More specifically, a lack of fear.
Think back to junior high school; easily the most socially awkward years of a human lifespan. You were scared to go to school because you thought people would make fun of your clothes, or scared your teacher would single you out for not having completed your homework. You were scared of the changes taking place in your body. You were scared to talk to the girl you liked, and you were scared to walk down a certain hallway at a certain time, because the bully might drag you into the bathroom and stuff your head in a toilet. You were scared of farting during a final exam. You were scared to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, because everybody would point and laugh at you, and cast you out of their clique as quickly as you were accepted into it.
Everybody’s time at junior high school is enveloped in an impenetrable fog of fear, and while it might give you the cold anxiety sweats to relive those wretched, emotionally tumultuous years, you can most likely attribute a massive spike in personal growth to those very same years, and that is because fear is an incredible catalyst of change. Fear of social rejection forced you to develop your personality and conversational ability, and seek out friends who understood you. Fear of being mocked for your looks drove you to cultivate your own sense of style. Fear of the school bully planted you in the gym or school sports, and built up your confidence to the point that he stopped messing with you. Fear of your friends goofing on you for the rest of your life pushed you to walk up to your crush with your sweaty hands buried in your pockets, and ask her to the Halloween dance.
Fear is a huge influence on who you are today, and continues to influence your choices as an adult. Your fear of being fat is why you’re eating that awful acai bowl for breakfast. Your fear of not getting that promotion is why you don’t walk around the office with your blazer inside-out like the Fresh Prince. Your fear of being ostracized is why you shy away from confrontation with friends and family. It’s why you refuse to talk about politics or religion at the bar, and why, if you see a conversation veering into dangerous territory, you do your best to redirect it. It’s why you don’t blurt out your innermost, guttural thoughts the minute they flash into existence. It’s why you take the time to lend your thoughts structure, purpose and conversational relevance. It’s why you don’t interject into conversations about topics you’re not familiar with. It’s why you don’t tell your Uber driver that his breath smells like a moldy pumpkin, and why you don’t respond to your liberal friend asking how your day went with “well it sure as shit would’ve gone better if Adolf Hillary wasn’t coming for my guns.”
What social media does is strip that healthy, necessary social fear from human interaction, and turns what could have been a meaningful conversation into, well…something else. No longer tethered by the unspoken rules of social engagement, originally well-intentioned people are free to safely vomit all over the Internet with boisterous claims, heavily biased articles from unverified sources, purposefully inflammatory statements, irrelevant commentary, argumentum ad hominem, politically charged Yosemite Sam memes, and everything else that makes it nearly impossible to navigate your personal networks without grinding your teeth. As long as they’re logged in, people are free to say anything without the fear of feeling completely fucking stupid which has always acted as the mortar binding together the masonry of polite society.
I just took you on a very windy road connecting chocolate cake to the virtues of fear, but now that we’re at our destination, I hope you think about our talk the next time your classmate from high school changes his profile picture to a confederate flag, or your naive Aunt Pearl shares a status update from Westboro Baptist Church. Chances are they’re good people and they just don’t know how to govern themselves without the statutes of real world interaction present, and no amount of debate from your is going to shake them out of those behavioral patterns.
All you can do is smile kindly, whisper “Hmmm Yum Yum Yum Yum” to yourself, and click that unfollow button until it snaps right off your god damned mouse.