The Internet of Despairing Things

“Hi, thanks for checking in. I’m still a piece of garbage.”

Is melancholy a dominant emotional state of many internet users? Why does everyone seem so sad and depressed? Are websites like Upworthy a response to this negativity? A feeble attempt to inject the positive into an all-consumingly depressing world? We all see those Facebook memes about positive thinking. Or people declaring that they’re going to start posting pictures of baby animals to interrupt the stream of negative images and stories. But whatever happy place we flee to, there still seems to come that periodic “knock knock.”

Who’s there? It’s depression.

While melancholia is a classical malady, something I have noticed over the past few years is the proliferation of posts online that feature extremely negative content. Posts related to depression & anxiety (in both their clinical and everyday senses), death, despair, and hopelessness gets tens of thousands of shares and likes.

These posts paint pictures of young people barely able to get by, suffering feelings of hopelessness, loneliness, and an intense desire for death. These feelings may stem, in part, from the proliferation of micro-experiences online. As Dominic Pettman argues in his book, Infinite Distraction, new media increasingly modulates everyday social experience. Specifically tailored and modular feeds disperse people into micro experiences, where no one is seeing or feeling the same thing at the same time as others. This may lead people to develop an agonizing sense of isolation.

While social media seems to engender a sense of immediacy to social contact, in reality, it may, at the same time, widen the gaps. As some of the posts show, others often respond with encouraging messages and GIFs, but often that may not be enough.  We despair that our favorite followers are in different states, countries, and time zones. For those who might face harassment online for their opinions or identity, being online sharpens the double-edged sword, where threats encourage victims to log off and eschew contact of any kind altogether.

Some come to feel that they no longer live, they just exist. There is no joie de vivre, just an existence that will hopefully come to an end sometime soon. In this existence, life seems to happen only to survive.

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These micro-experiences create a feeling of distance between people that can become unbearable. But, the problems of social distance alone cannot account for these intense feelings of despair. In a political economy where the social safety net has been eroded, precarity is the name of the game. The fear of failure is enhanced not only because we witness the Hollywood highlight reel of other’s success, but also because failure can have dramatic consequences. Medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy in the United States. Further, student loans cannot be easily forgiven in bankruptcy, demonstrating that even when young people hit rock bottom they now have to start digging. Most Americans don’t have enough in savings to survive any sort of emergency, while stagnating wages prevent most from saving hardly anything at all.

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It’s not surprising that being able to simply manage is considered a daily achievement. Video games such as Animal Crossing allow players to tap into the everyday successes and pleasures that usually come with a secure life: home ownership, planting a garden, civic engagement, and leisure activity.  Games like these are designed to be played in the spare everyday moments of leisure that have become increasingly sparse and give players a feeling of discrete and visible success in a world that seems so uncertain.

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Where do we go from here? I am far from a technological determinist who believes that social media can only dictate these kinds of feelings and situations. Yet, I have also felt these feelings of despair and isolation acutely as I refresh Twitter feeds and my Tumblr dashboard.  While cutting ourselves off from social media and taking a digital detox may help some, others find that their only meaningful experiences are found online, however fleeting and distant. In a world that is increasingly connected through such forms, unplugging may be just as isolating as being plugged in. As Pettman notes: “Social media takes the guesswork out of loneliness, but not necessarily the sting.”

In light of this, I’ve become interested in the idea of ambivalence. In Network Aesthetics, Patrick Jagoda turns to the idea of ambivalence as a “mode of extreme presence”: a way of negotiating and thinking through an unclear present. Resisting the urge to opt out of networks (if that is even possible), Jagoda argues that approaching network totality through ambivalence requires learning to inhabit the contradictory and ambiguous feelings that come with it. By taking up ambivalence, we open ourselves to possibilities that are not yet clear, ready, or available.