Hey, did you hear? Humanity is doomed. Everyone on the Internet is saying so. While no one seems entirely sure what that doom will entail, we have all established ourselves as professional proof finders of its imminence. We announce it after hypocritical posts on Facebook, when someone incorporates text speak in their vernacular, during political campaigns, and every time a Kardashian opens its mouth. We love drawing a bead on the evidence more than we like doing anything about it because we all learned at an early age while playing The Oregon Trail that hunting is way more fun than trying to save anyone.
"Ha, if anyone's doomed, it's these buffalo. Oh. Sad."
However, if there's one unifying theme to all this certain doom, it seems to be that humanity's end will be a direct result of idiocy; specifically, the idiocy of people who aren't us. All those Aren't Us-es keep ruining everything by spilling their stupid on our favorite things. On the Internet, they show up like stains in the comment sections, in our Twitter feeds, and even in the ads before videos. But here's the rub: All that idiocy and awful behavior you see online is at least partially your fault, and by that I mean the very broad "you" that also includes me. I'm so sorry.
Comment sections are the crowd-sourced juries of the Internet. In a lawless environment where anyone can cheat or lie without much repercussion, it's only the overlap in public sentiment that determines what's interesting or stupid, original or stolen, funny or fake, and gay. Giving the audience a voice ensures that the comments as a whole will provide a scatter plot of general opinion. But if you pluck any single comment from the group, it may very well be the most depressing thing you will ever read. Without fail, there will always be at least one comment with startling amounts of racism, sexism, and religious fanaticism crammed into a couple sentences. And without fail, some perfectly normal if naive person will decide that today is the day they are going to fix the broken hate-filled mind of a lunatic.
Behind every call for genocide, this is all they see.
To be clear, no one has ever walked away from one of these spirited comment debates on superior races, or domestic battery, or whether mass shootings happen because God is mad at us for being nice to gays, and thought, "Boy, the things Slipperydick311 said really opened my eyes. Time to get my life back on track." In fact, there's a good chance that whoever you argue with online is genuinely crazy. Just because someone has fingers and a keyboard doesn't mean he or she is a normal, functioning human being. If you saw a crazy homeless person in the middle of the street shouting that the Holocaust was a myth, you wouldn't engage that person in a discussion about why he's mistaken. You would just keep walking, because you don't know that man, he's not convincing anyone, and, I can't stress this enough, he's crazy.
"Mexicans have tails!"
You can never win, because you're not fighting against a belief; you are fighting against a psychological imbalance. Yet if that same man wanders into a library and manages to peck out some sentences at the bottom of a YouTube video on a public computer, why on Earth do we allow that to hold more weight?
Worst of all, gifting attention to lunatics online has birthed an entirely new breed of insanity: the troll. A troll is equally as crazy but less interested in convincing you of fringe beliefs and more interested in attention. He will shout just to shout because he has seen firsthand that you will listen, and unlike the other crazy people who started this problem, the troll is only interested in acknowledgement. It's such a confused, strange approach to human connection that I'm not entirely convinced that even the trolls know why they're doing it. But they will be around as long as someone is willing to argue in a comment section, which means they are here for good, and it's the fault of every person who was foolish enough to think they could ever help another human being.
Here is a recent news story about Nigerian girls who invented a urine-powered generator that produces six hours of energy from a liter of piss. Here is another news story about someone finding 18 severed human heads in a package at Chicago O'Hare Airport. Both of these stories are spectacular and engaging, and also only about 10 percent true. In reality, the urine-powered generator extracts hydrogen from the urine at such an underwhelming rate that the process is eating up far more energy than it's producing. Also the girls didn't invent it; it was only a science project.
In the article about the human heads, no one actually opened a package and realized that it contained the trophies of a serial killer. Those were specimens being transferred from one medical lab in Rome to another in the U.S., something that happens all the time. The most interesting part of the story is that the paperwork mentioned what was inside. That's it. The real story is that a delivery guy read some paperwork. Neither one of those sensational stories is actually much of a story at all when all the facts are accounted for, and this type of thing happens all the time. Now, while that may sound dangerously irresponsible on the part of news organizations, you're also about 90 percent to blame for the phenomenon.
I apologize if this isn't actually a picture of you.
The whole reason they aren't completely accurate is because each article absolutely has to be click-friendly to an online audience. In the example of the story about human heads, you can watch the progression of titles as the story makes its way across "news" sites. The Chicago Sun Times, where the story originated, initially led with the header, "Inquiry into Research Facility Holds Up 18 Human Heads at O'Hare." Then Fox News felt comfortable enough tweaking the story to "18 Human Heads Found at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport," and finally Gawker tested the full elasticity of the truth by titling it "18 Severed Human Heads Discovered in Package at Airport; Everyone Being Very Chill About It," because they know that the only way to ensure that people read it is to make the story into something startling enough to become viral.
Now, it's no secret that we don't read newspapers anymore; countless Heralds, Tribunes, Posts, Times, and whatever they read in other countries have folded because we've proven that we prefer our news from blogs and content aggregators like Reddit. And good riddance, right? The newspaper industry is a relic, we're living in the future! Reddit knows how to trim out the fat and give us the very best news from around the world. Everything on Tumblr and the other blogs we follow is guaranteed to be fascinating and specifically catered to us because we handpicked the people who provide it.
But here's the problem: The stories still have to originate somewhere. Someone has to do the fact checking, and the source checking, and the interviews, and break the stories, but those people are all getting fired left and right because we've ensured that journalism isn't a viable career option anymore. So the only way for lean and desperate news outlets to get traffic from aggregators and blogs is if each article is absolutely shocking. As a result, the stories get fudged a little until they're more sharable for an online audience.
It's easiest to think of these refined, processed news stories as Reese's Pieces that make up a tiny portion of your online consumption. They're a nice treat once in awhile, but when they are the entirety of your information diet, the part of your brain that used to be responsible for breaking down the complex, nutrient-filled, TL; DR carbohydrates has nothing to do anymore and starts to atrophy. You start to lose the energy and the will to ask questions about the story and instead cave to the insatiable urge to just keep ingesting.
That's why fake news stories can surge through Twitter before anyone has a chance to debunk them. The Internet allowed for the creation of a fast food version of information that's not particularly good for you but still triggers that same pleasure zone in the brain. You're essentially fattening yourself up with information obesity, because the news outlets, in the end, are businesses that know they can stay in the black by feeding you what you want as opposed to what you need. Meanwhile, reason and rationality rot like neglected teeth. Or maybe it's journalism that's rotting like teeth. I don't know anymore, that metaphor kind of got away from me.
We are all naked on the Internet. If not literally, then at least figuratively. In the real world, we have the luxury of showcasing our style through what we choose to wear, allowing our clothes to define our identity. If that sounds shallow, remember that the most popular song on the radio right now is about a guy digging through thrift store bins and having sex with women because they like his fashion. But online, we lose that important indicator of taste, so how does an ordinary person like you stand out and prove that you're interesting without a full-length fur coat to do the job? The answer is in videos, pictures, infographics, and every other undiscovered Internet gem you can dig up. The Internet is not unlike a massive thrift store bin: It's full of a whole lot of useless garbage and a few amazing finds that no one else has seen for probably a decade. You can pride yourself on your ability to discover something interesting and then wear it on your Facebook and Tumblr and Pintrest pages. The things you choose to post on social media define your online persona, and naturally, above all else, you want to be cool.
This is how we all look online, even the ladies.
But when you're looking through a thrift store and you happen to find a shirt with UFOs chasing an Uzi-wielding minotaur, rarely will your first thought be, "I wonder who the designer is?" because the original creator lost his or her relevance the minute this item ended up in a secondhand store; now the discoverer deserves the credit.
Maybe you see where this is headed.
When people try to apply the same rules to content they find online, it ends up screwing the creator. While you may not be the type of person who would crop someone's logo or watermark out of a picture, or cut someone else's byline from an article before posting it yourself, I assure you that you are at least the type of person who would like it, retweet it, or reblog it after someone else removed all mention of the source. We are all that type of person, and we prove it every day, because we rarely take a minute to really hunt for the original creator of anything we casually enjoy while scrolling through a news feed. We've accidentally encouraged the discoverers of content to feel a sense of accomplishment when they find something new and then cover their tracks to the place they found it. It's a bizarre and counterintuitive form of fandom built into our culture where we only like a comic, a video, a song, or a website as long we're one of the first to discover it. If we aren't the news breakers, then we lose interest.
Oh, this? My ears just wrote an awesome new song. You should check it out on my blog.
Unfortunately, what can only earn that secondhand poster a handful of thumbs-up icons is actually costing the original creator a whole lot more. Those people are stealing the success of the thing they love and actively trying to tuck the artist away in their own personal dark corner of the Internet. While they may not realize it, those fans are creating their own little sweatshops of creativity and then selling it to the public for the arbitrary awards of likes and reblogs. Worst of all, you're perpetuating it each time you give them what they want. Granted, none of it actually means we're doomed, but it would sure be nice if you cut that shit out.