That the internet is a miserable place is rarely still disputed. The New York Times ran an article about it in 2012—which suggests most of the rest of us had been aware of it since 2006. Depression itself has been a favorite topic of the internet for at least as long: crudely drawn comics with facile punchlines have achieved wild popularity. This taste of the internet’s consumers suggests that the internet itself is what is depressing us. That consumer and producer alike fail again and again to make this connection is also typical of depression.
I remember visiting my grandparents as a teenager, withdrawing into the internet in lieu of lousy company, jerking it to some porn, and being marshaled two days later to answer for the malware on my grandma’s computer; the videos had gone viral. The evidence was everywhere. I denied it strenuously and made sure to clear my own search history twice when I came home.
Today, history is not so easily revised or wiped clean. Like the New Testament God of my grandparents, Google remembers everything. The American consumer not only has no right to be forgotten, he also has no right to forget. As the depressed person always fears, it is already too late. If something is on the internet, it is on there forever. The past, set in keystrokes, dictates a single and deterministic future, of whom the consumer is the hero and own worst enemy. Every insane idea can find its support; the internet can support any insane thesis, justify any fear. On WebMD, every symptom one of cancer. But the real cause of the malaise is too much time spent on the internet. Advice from friends and experts recedes before the webpage, in which the consumer seeks a single diagnosis to explain everything. But those who search for a single diagnosis to explain everything will rarely accept the true diagnosis, which is depression.
Health and commerce may dictate the culture of the internet, but the internet user is, by and large, using the internet for fun. He could play games or watch videos, which, for the most part, are at once mindless and all-encompassing, but he is more likely to be reading.
Reading on the internet is not so much doing nothing as pretending to do nothing. It is an active way of distracting yourself from yourself, which every depressed person craves. It is also a way of anchoring yourself to reality, but it is also a way of forgetting, and sedating yourself with stimulation. The depressed person is unable to create new ideas from scratch, and seeks reinforcement of his PHP-like internal logic from external sources.
From the Times to Drudge Report, internet readers suspend judgment, assume objectivity, turn off their senses of humor and irony and character and complexity—which is to say, they don’t really read. Or: they read more than ever before, but haven’t read anything—which is why Hyperbole and a Half and XKCD, with their lame and perishable references to modernity or science, appear in this context to be cultured and literate. This implies reading on the internet is incredibly stupefying, far beyond watching TV and movies. It is passive entertainment without the entertainment. The closest comparison is to watching the news, which blares in the background at my grandma’s house, 24 hours a day, like a telescreen. The segments repeat periodically, and my grandparents watch them again, forget them again. When I read the internet, I am no less scatterbrained. I remember almost nothing I read, which means I am fated to read the same thing over and over again. My thoughts circle around and devour themselves, like a depressed person’s. And so the news cycle begins again.
It is no mistake that the internet’s dominant medium for readers is news, with its claims of objectivity, its thesis-driven narratives, flat language and flatter aesthetic. Anger is much more likely than laughter. The depressed person trusts no one but his champions. He wants to be told that he is OK. The depressed person is not on the internet to have a good time; he is on the internet to avoid a bad time. There is no question he is among the easiest people to manipulate. Reading the internet makes him unhappy, which makes him stupid. As someone who writes on the internet, I strongly believe that its users, like my news-watching grandparents, would be happier if they read less.
This puts me in an awkward spot. The myth of participation makes writing on the internet not so different from reading it.
I first became an internet addict through StarCraft, in 2000, when I was 12 years old. Once you got past the porn, everyone in the pubic chatrooms who chatted was chatting about religion or politics, two other fields that stake a claim to objectivity and that are always in the news. I vaguely remember being proselytized to and claiming to be open-minded, which, even then, was obviously untrue. Now the debate rages on, on innumerable other chatrooms, forums, and news sites. The participants are all twelve years old. They are doing the same thing and expecting different results, because they remember little of themselves.
How can it be any other way? The explicit objective of writing news is to minimize the narrative voice; the story is simply something that happens to the reporter, who might as well have researched the entire thing on the internet.
Gatherings of internet users, which call themselves communities, are more accurately cults. Like the depressed person, and consisting of depressed people, cults have no need for reality: the obverse of writing with no narrator is writing with only a narrator. Both lead to exactly the same thing: ideology, which exists so its subscribers can justify anything. The only real person is the speaker himself. With its isolation, the internet is an ideal breeding ground for cults like MRAs, Gamergaters, and so on: in front of a computer screen, there is so much less reality to deny.
Cultists may deny reality, but they exist in it. Their threats may, like everything else of theirs, rarely amount to anything beyond fiction, but their trolling uncovers and creates depression throughout the rest of the internet. The narrative conceit of the internet is that you can do whatever you want on it; you can become a fictional version of yourself. But too often creative types that exist beyond cults wish to divorce ourselves from any negative repercussions of our actions, which are, after all, only writing, nothing to get upset about—unless you’re depressed.
When I wrote a regular feature for a Magic store aggregator, I would descend to the comment sections, which are the purest expression of internet depression, and express dismay that anyone felt negatively about my work—I would say that I descended to their level, but I was already there. “I didn’t write this just to get negative attention!” I might have joked about myself—but who laughs at themselves on the internet?
More recently, I trolled a Magic article. The author threatened to “report” me to the company I listed as my job on Facebook, at which I don’t actually work, so I claimed to be a victim of bullying, which was not actually true. He backed off immediately, but not before I’d become all I hated, the definition of every depressed person.
There can be little warmth between such people. The internet promises companionship, but its friends are the depressed person’s imaginary friends. Life on the internet is more prone to contract than expand; it is much easier to lose friends than make them, because friendship hinges on irony and complexity, and web communication is not intimate. Television has long peddled shows that give the viewer the illusion of being part of a community; on the internet, it is worse, because its users kind of are.
THE SYMPTOM AND THE CAUSE
Nowhere is this worse than on social media, which further blurs the distinction between participant and creator. Twitter is the social platform that exists most entirely on the internet, between strangers—we use it to “expand our brands” or “broaden our platforms” or other buzzphrases that are the province of the depressed. Everyone on Twitter pretends to be the best version of themselves: professional, incisive, “open-minded”—but everyone knows that everyone else is being the worst version of themselves. This kind of communication, self-advertising into an inhuman void, quashes counterculture, and it does so irresistibly. If everyone started being their normal selves on the internet, there would be no ill effects for giving offense. But that is impossible. Social media presents us with the kind of collective-action problem you see in authoritarian systems, and the powerlessness, the small narcissism of being alone and being right, are classic manifestations of depression.
Social media presents a morality without happiness, or corporate morality, without being paid much: so depression in its economic sense, as well. The internet’s business model is ads, and ads do not democratize revenue. The individuals make too little, and the companies make too much, to behave sanely. In social media, there is nothing on a human scale. It is no mistake workers in large organizations are loath to put anything in writing: someone else might see it. Yet on the internet, there is no other way to communicate. We would like to receive all of the credit and none of the blame. In that sense, all of our language is commercial.
“Twitter,” remarked an acquaintance in one of her very few tweets—“a lifetime to build a reputation, 140 characters to destroy it.” The consequences of anonymity are trolls, cults, and comment sections, but the consequences of reputation are worse and more widespread. On Twitter, which is public, people write to become their reputations, which are poorly imagined due to how terrible they are at reading. On Facebook, which is private and more recreational, reputation is depressing in a different way: the platform ostensibly exists to strengthen real-life friendships, but it typically does not.
That reading your newsfeed and writing in others’ can result in depression lays bare the sham of internet participation. We post articles to appear interesting, their merit be damned; or we post them to align ourselves with whatever modish ideology we want our friends to think we’ve adopted. But it is the one-on-one interactions that most closely approximate real life and yet feel like a freak inversion of it.
I have spent hundreds of hours arguing on the internet, and most of it has been against friends, on Facebook. In person these arguments would be collegial. Human warmth would intercede. We likely would not even argue at all, and the raw nature of internet communication is one reason for optimism. Yet it ruins the arguments as soon as it raises them. One person takes issue with another’s tone. The other takes issue with that, and the other with that, and so on, ad absurdum, until the original issue, irrelevant in the first place, has long been forgotten. No sane or healthy relationship goes like this. Real-life friendships exist not because of the internet, but in spite of it. And getting angry over nothing is the very definition of depression. We objectify our friends and we objectify ourselves. And the platforms monitor every word of it, converting strings of English into a more efficient language.
The internet has not given public communication the candor of privacy, but private conversation the narcissism of publicity. We solicit opinions, but only to shoot them down. We argue, but only about etiquette and form. The leisure has become the labor: we distract ourselves with the internet, and then distract ourselves from the distraction. We create poorly written fictional selves, read other people’s fictional selves poorly, and compound the error by doing it all over again. The cycle perpetuates itself, acquiring depth and independence, and robbing its victims of the same. This is depression.
The internet is a miserable place, and, as always, it raises questions: If our fictional selves are worse, why do we bother participating at all? And what kind of person is at his finest when staring at a screen?
TREATMENT AND PROGNOSIS
Irony and context can save a person from himself from the internet. By making jokes, sly comments, and not labeling them with “satire” on the Facebook newsfeed, you can teach yourself to write, and others to read. You can poke fun at the rich and influential, empower the downtrodden, and shuffle off the self-perpetuation of it all. Or you can just walk away and do something else. The internet’s depression is yet another fiction.
The internet creates the symptoms of depression, but it can also treat them. By avoiding content with irony and context, it is possible to live a life on the web, and forget, for the most part, that other people are out enjoying themselves. Games, health, finance, news, and commercial articles together can deaden depression almost as much as they bring it about. I lived that reality for two and a half years, while on antidepressants. The internet is depressing, but it is also antidepressing. Antidepressants are, past a certain point, unsustainable. This indicates that the internet acts as an antidepressant through consumerism, until the humans run out of money and it is all in the hands of a few huge companies.
Then the internet will be more depressing, and more necessary, than ever before.
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]