There’s a lot of writing around nowadays. On the web, on ebooks, in physical books: it’s probably never been easier to assemble a library you’ll never get around to reading. Too much writing, actually, an overwhelming amount, that would take years to read at a normal rate. Because of that, I’ve become a lot more unsparing about the reading I stop to read, and much more likely to just scan through it.
With so many thousands of readers and writers, it seems like the lowest common denominator has risen to the top. A few things reliably grab attention: sex, anybody with lots of money, the President. Online, content has become sophisticated in its expression but lowbrow in its content. It’s not an echo chamber so much as a kind of bubble that reality can’t penetrate. It’s an artificial environment where the clock is almost out, someone’s always reliving the most exciting or scariest moment of their lives, and portentous lessons are being either taught or learned. It’s stressful to read, almost.
People tend to strike poses in online writing: the contrarian, the compassionate one, ‘scared for our community,’ the radical. Online they’re much stronger than they’d be in real life: the conversion rate from compassionate posts to compassionate real-life activities might be 100:1, just as the contrarian won’t actually argue controversial points in person with someone else with anything like their online vehemence, or even, probably, at all.
Why is the difference so great? In person, a lot of this would be tedious. People would agree with you, or they wouldn’t, but it would come to a head quickly – faster than online, despite the instant access. A lot of it would seem redundant: yes, I agree, let’s move on; or no, I don’t agree, so stop dumping rhetoric on me so I can respond. Part of it is something different, though, something harder to grasp: away from a computer, abstractions become less important. So the kinds of abstractions that people like to hash through, online, become irrelevant when you’re in a real place and the lines look different than you imagined them.
When the Internet started it seemed it would make us less lonely. It hasn’t worked out that way. Many people might agree with you, but because there’s no outlet for it, no way for it to filter out and affect reality, it often ends up being disappointing. If I get angry and call someone and have an argument with them, that energy is released. Online, it just builds and builds to nothing in particular, for as long as you don’t look away; but once you do, it’s like it was never there. It’s ultimately unsatisfying.