6 New Kinds of Anxiety the Internet Gave Us

For 99 percent of human history, there was no such thing as talking to a person who wasn't in front of you. No phones, no instant communication from farther than shouting distance. If that doesn't absolutely blow your mind, you haven't thought it through -- the first man to ever wake up and realize that he had drunk dialed an ex-girlfriend the night before must have felt like he had been cursed with a destructive new form of black magic.

Likewise, we're about 20 years into widespread Internet use now, and it's easy to forget how many of the day-to-day anxieties we deal with are brand new to the species. For instance ...

#6. Accidental-Sharing Panic

Medioimages/Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images

You know what allows humans to live together in a society? Walls. The fact that we get to choose when other people can or can't hear what we're saying. But in the world of email, one pixel separates the button for, "send your buddy Steve this crude joke about the boss's body being made entirely of compressed farts" ...

... from the button that means, "send this crude joke to the entire company, including the aforementioned boss, and instantly destroy your entire life forever":

Microsoft Outlook is actually full of little landmines like this -- when you type in recipient names, it does that autocomplete thing, so if hypothetically you worked for a publication that starts with a "C," then any time you send an email to anyone whose name also starts with a "C," it immediately tries to autocomplete the recipient to the "Cracked - All" mailing list. Every time. As you know, five of our six most popular contributors are named Chad, so every time I want to reply to one of them with a candid message like "Jack O'Brien? More like Jerome O'Fartmonster!" the email software will try to trick me into sending it to the "Everyone Who Works Here" list.

You might say, "Well, that's what you get for saying mean things about your superiors over email, jackass!" but I, like most people, do most of my interaction with other human beings over some kind of computerized text -- email, instant messenger, text messaging, whatever (in fact, I telecommute to work, so almost all of my interaction with co-workers is done this way). So it's natural to eventually treat email the way you'd treat everyday conversation, including the venting, rumor sharing, and joking that all humans engage in as a necessary part of maintaining our sanity. It's just that now, we're one miniscule twitch of the finger away from broadcasting our ugliest thoughts to the world.

Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com
"Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!"

What Was It Like Before the Internet?

Prior to 1995 or so, I can't imagine a circumstance in which an employee for a company could state some unpopular opinion or off-color joke to his co-worker and instead accidentally say it to all 5,000 employees of the company nationwide. Shit, it wasn't that long ago in human history when you couldn't speak to that large of an audience period (when Jesus spoke to the masses, the people in the back were only there because they heard there was free fish), let alone do it accidentally.

So the only way anybody living more than 20 years ago could have even known what accidental sharing panic felt like is if there was some bizarrely specific circumstance involving a public address system whose microphone was positioned really close to the water cooler, and somehow the mic got left in the on position.

Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images
"So I just shit directly in it. Man, am I glad that he'll never know."

And in the Future ...

Oh, look what every porn video site has now:

Via Tube8.com (NSFW)

Little "share" buttons that, with one touch, will tell your mother, grandmother, friends, family, co-workers, and everyone else you vaguely know what porn video you're watching. And if you think it's easy to accidentally hit something like that with your mouse, wait until we've all transitioned to tablets and are tapping these controls with our fat fingers. Not that it will take that much effort -- the future is a world where everything you read and watch is automatically shared on social networking unless you specifically tell it not to. In the future, preventing your personal secrets and preferences from being spilled into the world will be as futile as record labels trying to stop file sharing.

#5. The Irresistible Impulse to Follow a Link Chain

Burke/Triolo Productions/Brand X

Or, as we have previously referred to it, Wikipedia freefall.

It works like this: Somebody at the bar insists that Keanu Reeves is actually 58 years old. You call bullshit, so you bring up his Wikipedia page, but while checking his age, you happen to read down and find out that Reeves' infant daughter and girlfriend both tragically died just a year apart while he was shooting the Matrix sequels. Fascinated, you wind up reading the whole entry and then clicking on the link to the Wiki page for the movie Constantine. Then you keep reading it because while there, you learn that series creator Alan Moore claims that the titular character twice approached him in real life, having somehow escaped the comics.

Having long forgotten what you originally came for, you now have to click on Alan Moore to see what other crazy things he has said/done and wind up reading about how he and his wife openly shared a female lover until his wife and the lover both left him, and also, he worships the Roman snake god Glycon. So of course you click on Glycon's Wiki page and see that it's an obscure 2,000-year-old religion still practiced in some parts of the world, but that the serpent deity "was supposedly a hand puppet" invented by a satirist. Then you click on the history of serpent worship and read that the blue-snake-curled-around-a-rod symbol you see on ambulances is a reference to a Greek god and that is the reason ancient hospitals used to have live snakes all over the floor ...

Then you blink, look up, and realize that 12 hours have passed.

Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com
Don't do it, Grandpa! You don't have that much time left to begin with!

What Was It Like Before the Internet?

How was this possible before somebody invented hyperlinking? I'm imagining that scene from The Fellowship of the Ring where Gandalf is trying to track down the origins of the One Ring and winds up in that library, grabbing ancient crumbling scrolls off the shelf, frantically reading one after another by candlelight ...

Wait, is this what those people who hung around in libraries were doing when I was a kid? Did they spot a reference in a book to some periodical, then sit down with the microfilm to look it up, then just get lost down the rabbit hole for the rest of the day, scrolling through old news articles? Then why were they always exposing themselves to me?

Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images
"Spoiler alert! You're about to find out what the human body turns into."

And in the Future ...

I don't want to sound all paranoid about Google Glass -- I look forward to the day when I can play browser games in my eyeglasses while my boring doctor drones on about why I have eye cancer. But holy shit is it going to be hard to have conversations once I know I can bring up Wikipedia with a twitch of my eyeball.

Somebody on the bus mentions quinoa and you think, "What's that?" and instantly make the Wiki page float in front of your face. Before you know it, four hours have passed, you're reading about the history of aircraft carriers and the bus is on the other side of the state. I'm picturing a world where people are just constantly nodding off like heroin addicts, going into trances and staring off into space, because two hours ago somebody referenced an actor or TV show they weren't familiar with, then they looked it up, and ... off they went.

Brand X Pictures/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images
"Holy shit, you're supposed to be driving!"

#4. "Are They Talking About Me?" Social Media Anxiety

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The entire reason I wrote under a pseudonym when I started out (a name I thought up on the spot while registering on a movie forum in 1998 that now stars in its own movie) was because I didn't want co-workers reading an off-hand joke I made about the stinky guy at the office without a dozen of them saying, "Wait, is he talking about ME? Am I the stinky guy? WHY, THE NEXT TIME HE YAWNS, I SHALL FART INTO HIS MOUTH!"

But now that everyone is writing for the public on at least one social network, this sort of "Is this post actually about ME?" anxiety is something everybody will feel at one time or another. For instance, people tend to post cryptic Facebook updates, like "I just love it when people act like they're my friend while they're talking shit behind my back :-("

Ablestock.com/AbleStock.com/Getty Images
"Sitting there in their computer chair with their hand on their mouse."

You read it and think, well, that's not about me, I'm not talking shit! But then you think, "Yeah, but maybe she thinks I am! That's what 'behind my back' means, after all!" But since this is Facebook and not a private conversation, now you have comments from all 450 of her friends expressing sympathy, trying to guess who the traitor is, everyone piling on. And here's the thing: Even if you know their cryptic post is talking about you, since they didn't name you by name, you can't jump in and defend yourself -- it could turn out you're wrong, and then, perversely, you look like an egomaniac for assuming everything is about you.

What Was It Like Before the Internet?

The grapevine has always existed -- I'm sure that 30 years ago you'd find that your personal conflict with a supervisor had become juicy gossip in the mailroom. But it was just a dozen bored people looking for drama to get through the monotony. But now that everyone has an audience, the whole dispute happens for the audience's benefit. That's the difference.

Hemera Technologies/Photos.com
"You gonna put up with that shit? Call her a fat bitch! That'll show her!"

Your classmate Trevor wasn't confused about what would happen when he posted on Tumblr that "It's heartbreaking to find out one of your friends is cheating on one of your other friends, but you can't say anything." He knew that was juicy shit, and that it would get everyone talking. And you know how everyone acts crazier on reality shows when they know the camera is on them? That's what happens when personal drama becomes entertainment for a crowd, and the people involved in the drama know it ("Damn, she just went Omarosa on his ass!").

Before the Internet era, the only people I can imagine feeling this "Is that my dirty laundry that just went public there?" anxiety on a regular basis were, of course, old-school rappers. Every time a new diss track would come out, they'd have to think, "Am I the sucker MC he's talking about who thinks his rhymes are phat but who deserves an ass full of gat?" or, "Wait, does he see me as one of the haters from the block who didn't believe in him when he was growing up, but who's all on his jock now that he's blowing up?"

That's why it had to be refreshing when Tupac was so direct in "Hit 'Em Up,"* when he started the trend of naming his enemies openly (NSFW):

Unless there's two dudes out there named "Biggie" and/or "Mobb Deep," this is very clear feedback presented in a very direct way. I would have enjoyed having Tupac as a supervisor. But I digress.

*Side note: Can any lawyers out there let me know why it's legal to make explicit death threats as long as they're in rap-song form? At one point he actually says something to the effect of "This is not just a song, I am literally saying I am going to shoot Biggie Smalls to death."

And in the Future ...

I believe the day is coming when people will have front-facing cameras that can start live-streaming whatever they're doing, at any time, through either some advanced version of the aforementioned Google Glass or some future camera they can implant right into their goddamn eyeball.

Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images
"I'm hacking this fucker to shoot lasers. And then you're all going to pay."

Which means that in the future, you'll have an innocuous conversation with a co-worker only to find out later that he streamed the whole thing to his 8,000 followers under the title "LOL THIS DICKHEAD IS PRETENDING TO BE NICE TO ME AGAIN! LISTEN TO HIS BULLSHIT HA." There'll be a live chat window where everyone can post in real time about how awful you are, sharing humorous anecdotes about the time you tried to be nice to them, too.

And you'll always be the last to know.

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David Wong

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