A worrisome trend is underfoot, creeping like a viral fungus. Remember when the Internet was snarky, vicious, and brutal, a place for people to say things without fear of retribution, cloaked beneath the crude cloak of anonymity? Those people, those bad-hearted, calloused vermin of the Web, are being overtaken by another cohort: Nice people, and their ridiculously good-natured, happy-as-a-clam words and thoughts promoting good deeds and adorable furry creatures and general, placid joy in whatever the world has to offer, so long as its nice. Buzzfeed's "21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity" probably would have been laughed off the Internet in the bad old days of 2003. Now it's been Facebook shared nearly half a million times.
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But beyond the posts there is how we do things now: There's Kickstarter, which helps us all support each other, not only emotionally but financially, to realize the projects of our dreams. There's Twitter, and its enormous back-patting powers, by which we can tell our friends and fellow journalists and readers and those we read how great they are, minute-to-minute, second-to-second. We can tell ourselves, too, by retweeting when something good is said that refers to us! (Humbly, of course, with a big smile.) There's Facebook, where we announce our sadnesses to the world and the world hugs us in a giant, digitized embrace. And there are the emoticons—the blank, faceless, deathless emoticons—that stand in for how we feel, to soften everything, to remind people who might be offended that we're just being nice, we like you, we do! :) :) :) !!!! :P YAY!
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It's as though we've all taken one giant virtual quaalude after gorging on cupcakes. I blame it on the rainbows; those double ones really set a terrible precedent. So there's now this trend, a trend of niceness, a trend of positivity, and it is hovering over us, a bright yellow shiny happy cloud waiting to let loose a flood of happy tears. When it does, we will surely die of all the rain, which flushes us in a stream of heartwarming stories to our graves. Or, probably, some jerk will save us by ushering us into his canoe at the very last second, and we'll have to survive to see ourselves talking thankfully about our hero on Good Morning America.
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What's wrong with this?, you might ask (nicely). Isn't this a good thing? Don't we want, even aspire to, less meanness, less abuse and bullying, less being rotten just because we can? Snark is so early aughts, right? We're in the time of kindness, now. And we admit, perhaps, there are some benefits to this trend. People can't just get away with being sexist, or racist, or patently awful, because someone on the Internet will call them out and make them pay for their crime. Kids can't get away with bullying a bus monitor because someone on the Internet will shame them and make them pay, and other people will pay, too, to support the victim of the bullying, even though she is a full-grown lady, but we're not allowed to say that because those kids are evil and the Internet is where we stamp out badness! (Stamp, stamp, stamp!) Now infamous rotten kids (who will surely grow up to sell compelling, heart-rending memoirs about all they've learned) aside, is anyone concerned that real life honest-to-gosh curmudgeons are practically an endangered species these days? We miss you, Andy Rooney. (And while we're at it, seriously, what's so great about corgis?)
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If we do dare with our high-pitched little voices to ask timidly, shaking because we do not want to invoke the wrath of the great and powerful Internet (deliverer of justice! arbiter of what must be arbitrated!), whether perhaps the Internet has been ever so slightly too hard on someone bad, or if, maybe, the Internet is simply being part of an outrage machine in which we are all the nicest of bullies ourselves—and anyway, shouldn't people sort of learn to fight their own human battles without having the Internet reach in and do it for them, the Mom of the universe?—the Internet will easily turn and crush us, too. It has become unwieldy in its superiority, its comfortable posture at the top of everything pleasant, surrounded by powdered sugar donuts and delicious pink and green baked goods, handing out pamphlets on how to love cats and pictures of cute dogs in hats. It is full of itself, this Internet. It thinks it is right, defeating evil, wearing its superhero cape, looking in a mirror and preening. Maybe sometimes it is right, but that's not the point.
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When people do run afoul of it—often these are comedians, or people who are supposed to be "funny" but fail in the attempt and instead make off-color jokes and offend people—the Internet demands penance in the form of an apology. So many apologies we've gotten, as Bill Maher recently groaned in a New York Times op-ed, they've become nearly meaningless. Soon, the Internet will take a cue from our parents and have us write personal essays about what we've learned from all this. Or maybe it will send us to talk about our issues with the guidance counselor, or confine us to our rooms to think about what we've done, and why it was wrong. But you know what happened when your parents grounded you for every misstep? If you had even the slightest bit of gumption, you snuck out and did what you wanted to in the first place.
At the end of April, I wrote a piece about how important it is to release ourselves from the constraints of cynicism and sometimes just be earnest and also, sometimes, happy about things. I stand by that, but earnestness is not only about niceness. Sometimes, you can earnestly feel that an argument is wrong, or that a person is wrong, and you can say it. Earnestness is about being truthful. Sometimes it's even about being pissed off. But it's about being you, not the nice you, but the real you. That's how we spark debates and talk about dangerous, risky things and offer up opinions and challenge each other.
In all earnestness, I'm not talking about just the death of snark here, though I do miss it, some. Sarcastic blogging is a bit of an art form that a few continue to do quite well, and you should feel free to disagree earnestly with that. I'm also not talking about vile, racist, sexist, homophobic rants, which are wrong—though the way the Internet jumps on them for page views under the guise of morality can be equally gross. But beyond the outright offenses and abuses, a world in which everyone is so nicey nice all the time, so purely pleased and comfortable and self-assured and self-righteous, starts to sicken on another level. It becomes, frankly, a wee bit boring. As Doree Shafrir wrote in New York's Daily Intel in 2009, at what may have been the forefront of the onslaught of kindness, "In this new world of nice netiquette, technology is designed to make it easier for everyone to love one another." But what happens when all this love becomes a weird kind of self-repression, or worse, self-obsession? Too much mutual adoration could destroy this great thing we have going here, this conversation, this developing push-pull relationship, where sometimes we fight and sometimes we hate and then grow to love again, and then we go drinks beers together, or some of us do, and others of us pour our beers over the heads of people who've done us wrong on the Internet. But if we're all afraid we're going to lose our Twitter followers by being mean, we're doing it wrong in the first place.
Just as much as there is a place for kindness, for fluffy sweet animals, for heartwarming tales of bus monitors avenged, sometimes we also need a little troll in our lives. He's under the bridge, so hungry for—dear God, what do trolls eat?—hungry not for your apologies, but for something delicious. A little bit of nastiness, maybe, to spice things up. The Sriracha of life. Give the troll what he wants, don't force him to eat cotton candy forever. That stuff's just sugar and air. It's not a balanced meal.
- Internet & Networking