4 Positive Trends the Internet Doesn't Get Enough Credit For
Not long ago, I accused you, perhaps hastily, of ruining the entire Internet. I blamed you for absent-mindedly destroying the most valuable advancement in interpersonal connection since the advent of language just by being your miserable, wretched, greedy self.
It's possible I overreacted.
I neglected to include the equal number of extraordinary and inspiring ways your online habits are actually improving the Internet every day, and by default society as a whole. So I'd like to personally say I'm sorry, [your name here], you're not that bad after all.
Ugh, well at least not for the reasons I stipulated.
Now, I think we can agree that it takes a tremendous amount of character for someone to admit when he was wrong, and because I am the type of someone who spews character from every orifice, I want to do more than apologize -- I want to make it up to you. What follows are four ways you are helping to make us all better people by the way you use the Internet. I am laying them all out carefully for you to see because I suspect that you might be doing all of them by accident. Sorry, apologies are hard.
You're Making Knowledge Cool
Poor nerds. They had a brief window of time when the spotlight of pop culture finally illuminated their passions and then, just as quickly, all the coattail riders and scenery chewers crowded around them, proclaiming, "Hey, I'm a nerd, too! Look at me, look at how I geek out for, uh ... tacos!" The rise of the nerd and the rise of the Internet happened almost simultaneously. Expertise in any subject, no matter how niche or fictional, suddenly became currency for popularity. And while I can understand why it's frustrating for dinosaur diehards and elvish-speaking Tolkien lovers to suddenly have their favorite franchise or hobby diluted with bandwagon fanatics, the fact that the Internet is making knowledge cool is, in the end, a good thing.
Less than 15 years ago, intelligence might as well have been a curse as far as pop culture was concerned. A fixation on anything from the sciences to the seven kingdoms made you a social outcast. But today, almost 800,000 people are willing to sit patiently for 12 minutes watching someone bake bread.
Or watching someone explain complex laws of physics.
Or watching a bunch of assholes name analogues between the Ninja Turtles and the four humors.
We've fallen in love with knowledge, and that's almost exclusively a product of how you use the Internet. You hunt for novelty, relentlessly, and when that novelty doesn't manifest as sloths cuddling with cats, it usually takes the form of information. In fact, the only reason I have a job is because the Internet loves to consume interesting, unique facts. It's hard to argue that becoming smarter is a bad thing.
So the next time you scroll through your Facebook feed and find someone with whom you grew up screaming "I love science!" despite the fact that you know they never went to a single science class and did nothing but complain about how boring it was in high school, think about the alternative -- I'd much rather live in a world where people celebrate knowledge, even if it's blindly, than a world where everyone dismisses it as geek fuel.
You're Making Advertisements Fun
There's a very good reason why print and television advertisements suck: The creators have to make each one as watered down and broad as possible to ensure that they reach the largest audience given their placement. They can't be too clever or they risk millions of people missing the joke; they can't be too long or they risk millions of people losing interest; and they can't be too rapey because rapists are not traditionally strong consumer spenders. But above all, they can't interact with their audience. Their best hope is to shout loud enough that people pay attention briefly before flipping the page or changing the channel.
But the Internet is different. Granted, there are still the same stubborn people trying to create television commercials as pre-rolls or by tacking ads onto Facebook about how dentists want to kill a stay-at-home mother for unlocking the secret to whiter teeth or something. But smarter companies are realizing the power of virality. They're figuring out that they are finally free to do exactly what they've always wanted: focus hundreds of thousands of dollars on making the world genuinely magic for just one person so that he or she remembers the product forever. Like this joint ad for Coke Zero and SkyFall.
Or TNT advertising "drama," just as a general concept.
That kind of promotion was never viable before because only one guy got to experience it. But our Internet habits have assured advertisers that we're all happy to live vicariously through that guy as long as somebody filmed it. The campaign doesn't have to worry about demographics or time slots or anything other than making something that's incredible, because if it's incredible, we will spread it around for them. And I'm fine with that. I'm happy to do the legwork because they made someone's life extraordinary for a few minutes, and that's way better than ruining a classic rock song while shouting at me about zero due at signing.
You're Making People Accountable for Injustice
Recently a Delta Gamma sorority sister at the University of Maryland sent an email threatening to "cunt punt" each of the other members of her sorority if they kept insisting on being "weird" and "boring." More recently, a University of Arizona student attended a sexual assault awareness event on campus with a sign that said "You Deserve Rape." Even more recently than that, wide receiver for the Miami Dolphins Mike Wallace tweeted that he couldn't believe NBA center Jason Collins would want to be gay when there were all those beautiful women running around. These stories probably aren't news to you because each of them spent around 24 hours clogging your Facebook and Twitter feeds.
The reason everyone posts and reposts these stories is because pouncing on discrimination is one of our favorite new Internet hobbies, even when that injustice is happening thousands of miles away from us at a university we've never cared about before. If it wasn't for Facebook and Twitter, these would never even be news stories at all, but we've all poured a lot of hours into meticulously honing social media into a weapon that we can aim at injustice, and it's a weapon we love to use because it satisfies our itch for self-righteousness.
"That's it, now point it right at those Dove soap ads that reinforce chauvinistic concepts of beauty."
While the Internet's constant insistence on political correctness can sometimes be grating, knowing that there are entire communities of people holding bigots, sexists, and assholes in general accountable is comforting. It was the Internet that refused to let the Steubenville rape disappear, and it was the Internet that wasn't willing to just move on when Amanda Todd was bullied into suicide. Every day we force each other to be more self-aware and make smarter choices, or else risk suffering the wrath of millions. But more importantly, we're making each other better people.
I'm certainly willing to slog through all the outraged posts about the Onion making a bad joke or Justin Bieber making a naive, adolescent mistake about the Holocaust, as long as it means that the same people aren't letting Todd Akin get away with suggesting that women can't get pregnant from rape unless they're secretly enjoying it. That's a tradeoff I'm happy to make.
You're Making Generosity the Standard
Here, watch this video of a woman playing with a phone and faceplanting into a fountain.
Regardless of whether that lady was texting, updating Facebook, or trying to become foursquare mayor of K.B. Toys, she represents our greatest fears about technology: She loses sight of conspicuous threats in the real world because she's lost touch with everything around her. Thankfully, instead of getting turned to paste by a bus or stepping off of a cliff, we can all laugh because she only falls into some unsanitary mall water. Still, all the doom and gloom theorists who always warned us about our eager abandonment of real life in favor of a virtual existence finally have this video to point to and scream, "I told you so!" Or at least they could if their grandson happened to be home and willing to load the YouTube for them.
But anyone who panics that technology is isolating us from the real world and breeding antisocial behavior that tears at the fibers of society clearly has never seen how shockingly kind and supportive the online community is every day. Granted, there's a lot of negativity in forums and comment sections, but it's outweighed, or at the very least equalized, by the overwhelming philanthropy and selflessness everywhere else. People can find organ donors on Facebook, save lost dogs through Twitter, or fund hundreds of thousands of new businesses or artistic endeavors through Kickstarter. Had someone told me 10 years ago that they were building a website that would allow strangers to ask the Internet at large for thousands of dollars to fund the creation of a goddamn calendar of cats, I would have said it couldn't possibly work. But I underestimated the generosity of everyone with a computer.
All of that is possible because the heart of the Internet is altruism. It wasn't founded with a business plan, it was founded as a way for people to connect with one another, and that sentiment still rings true within the community that uses it. In one of the most uplifting TED Talks you'll ever see, Jonathan Zittrain explains how sites like Wikipedia can function as the eminent source of information online while simultaneously being exclusively crowdsourced by anyone who wants to post because the World Wide Web is dependent on random acts of kindness.
This whole system works because there's an unspoken expectation online that you make some effort to do good, and while sometimes people get confused about where to focus that good intention, the fact that everyone is so eager to help at all is heartening. So keep up the good work, [your name here], I'm sorry that I called you awful, especially when you're already planning to donate so handsomely to Michael Swaim and Cody Johnston's brilliant Kickstarter campaign, My Temple.