Posted by Martyn Casserly 03 July 2014
Upworthy, Buzzfeed, and the age of extreme amazement
The internet has recently started to sound more and more like Barnum’s circus due to the continual feed of amazing and heartwarming videos that appear on a daily basis. But is all this wonderfulness really good for us? How can our lives compete with such incredible feats of humanity?
Life was simple once. In a bygone age each day was a trudging affair of toil in the fields, battling against ever changeable elements with merely a leather jerkin and cornish pasty for comfort. All of this was done in the knowledge that when your exhausted frame hit a rather hard bed, tomorrow would arrive with the same burdens to fulfill once more. But on the horizon there was always hope, a day to look forward to that made the relentless labour endurable. A sunny morning that heralded a cessation to the exactions, and instead brought forth celebration - the end of the harvest. Then brightly coloured ribbons would be tethered to the maypole, and young folk would gaily dance around the phallus in jubilation, while older residents bedecked themselves with jangly items and performed the ancient art of gentle country stick fighting, singing strange incantations are trying not to spill their scrumpy. All was good in the world, and for a few shining hours life was the best it could be. Then the internet arrived and ruined everything.
Scarcity is a good thing. There are notable exceptions of course - food and oxygen leap to mind - but in general it’s not always advantageous to the human spirit when we have an overabundance of anything. Times of sheer joy need to be contrasted with the mundanity of normal life. Transversely we don’t want to find ourselves in the depths of despair for more than the most fleeting of moments. In order for all this to work, and our minds be able to cope with life, there needs to be a norm. Social media has done its very best to provide such a mediocrity benchmark by vehemently broadcasting the most banal aspects of people’s lives. For a while there was a propensity towards pictures of food that friends were about to eat; selfies have become so widespread that even world leaders are getting in on the act, and vaguebooking is a new way of spreading malaise to a disinterested audience. Our safety net was securely intact. Yet a new danger has emerged, a threat to sanity so severe it causes technology journalists to overstate its potential impact in verbose fashion. A burgeoning terror of happiness in our feeds - Upworthy, Buzzfeed, and the age of extreme amazement.
Here are a few typical headlines from these sites that appeared in my Facebook feed recently.
- ‘A Man Falls Down And Cries For Help Twice. The Second Time, My Jaw Drops’
- ‘What If 205 Million Gallons Of Oil Hadn’t Spilled Into The Gulf? This Video Answers In All The Ways.’
- ‘9 Out Of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-Blowing Fact’
- ‘Watch This Fearless Cat Save A Boy From A Vicious Dog Attack’
Now, in isolation these events are pretty cool, it must be said. I even watched that Cat one at the end about six or seven times. The problem is that the cumulative effect of several stories a day, often reposted innumerous times, is slowly warping my expectations of life. I think I would be crushed now if I approached a street busker only to discover that he wasn’t a world renowned violinist, or took part in an interview not being secretly being filmed by Dove and didn’t realise what a beautiful woman I really am. I knew where I was with instagram, when a cup of coffee and a bun was the most exciting thing presented that day. Now I have to contend with a flood of incredible moments that expose the wondrous heart of people in increasingly spectacular ways. Or at least videos and articles with titles that suggest an imminent catharsis-aneurysm is about to take place in my head. It’s all too much for this frail writer to comprehend.
Of course I’ve the option of restricting my feed, although that will only hold for about three seconds before Facebook, in all its benevolent glory, magically resets every preference. But really this is no solution. As a badly paraphrased Beth Orton once sang, ‘I wish I’d never saw the sunshine, because then I wouldn’t mind the rain’. How can I return to ploughing the word fields when amazepoles are being erected constantly in all the neighbouring villages? And it isn’t just cats battling dogs that are the problem, there’s the other side of the coin - extreme outrage.
There’s a simple adage that sums up how much of a social tinderbox the internet really is;
How do you start an argument online? 1) State your opinion. 2) Wait.
Following the comment threads of any even vaguely controversial subject can be a terrifying ordeal. Threats fly freely, characters are called in to question, and grammar is ritually slaughtered with callous abandon. It’s like being transported back to a feudal version of life where your opinion must triumph at all costs, lest your tribe be overrun and lineage destroyed. It can be quite a mind-bender when the two worlds collide. Watching a video about some incredible. awesome, tear inducing moment of beauty, then scrolling down into the depths of hell below can do strange things to the soul. Within a screen’s length you are presented with the best and worst (at least in a typed sense) of your fellow species, plus several posts with links for earning really good money working at home.
The real worry is that all of this will continue to escalate. How long before pigeons are fending off crocodiles to save babies that are dangling off the end of meteorites? Anything less just won’t stimulate my empathy glands. It can also only be a matter of time before a discussion on the merits of digestive biscuits devolves into one commenter emailing a fission bomb to the 3D printer of a rival who dared to suggest that Ginger Nuts were better for dunking in tea. Which they plainly are dammit! The old chinese curse ‘may you live in interesting times’ never seemed more prescient.