We may not agree about anything, but we do get enthusiastic about the same things. These are the moments where we might begin a sentence with: “Unless you live under a rock….”
Every week or so, social media boils over about something very concrete: a news story, a celebrity scandal, a disaster. What is curious to me about this routine is that regardless of the subjective opinions about the thing in question, everyone agrees that this thing is something to get enthusiastic about. Even those who claim to have never heard of it weigh in with their opinions on the matter and show their assent to the topic du jour being the topic du jour. While the qualitative forms of online enthusiasm oscillate in ideological directions, they all share the “enthusiasm itself,” aimed at the same object.
Much of this enthusiasm appears almost Pavlovian, but the “free” Internet is funded on the basis of traffic and advertising, and web traffic thrives on herds. News provides the equivalent of loud ambulance sirens that bloggers and social media users chase to witness a pile-up.
This is an indiscriminate appetite, revealing that our enthusiasm bespeaks a certain readiness to consume or be consumed. In terms of sheer exposure, there is no better object of enthusiasm than a catastrophe. Like a person who goes to a car race to see a high-speed car crash, the collective enthusiasm of the Internet shared by all is a longing for the jolt of controversy, outrage, and euphoria.
The Internet has not only created a more bitter and shallow pool of general opinion, it has created a singular and hegemonic set of regular prompts for popular enthusiasm. In between spectacles, the Buzzfeed quizzes, memes, and porn fill the gap. As titillating as catastrophes can be in full digital HD and retina screens, the effect is one-dimensional and boring.
When we scroll through the selected and customized options the algorithms have curated for us, we see the same thing. This form of standardized customization is another example of balkanized universalism, yet it shows that much of these universal states of enthusiasm is constructed and engineered from the outside.
Fortunately, this enthusiastic world is a tiny, anemic universe. I was recently in a parish where I was almost positive that no one knew what a “none” was. Again and again, I speak with people who have little to no clue what it is they are supposed to be upset or elated about. It is a sobering reminder that most people in the world actually live under a rock, with limited or no digital access or interest. This may seem outrageous in the Western world, but the exceptions abound, for better and for worse. For all the scale and speed of the digital world the universe expands in analog. There is no need to let the feverish feeds and auto-refreshing pages make any claims beyond their own existence.
There may be universal states of enthusiasm online and in popular chatter, and these united fronts beg for suspicion and acknowledgement that once the topic of discussion is set, the details don’t matter as much as the topic itself. More importantly, however, these universal states ignore the demanding and daunting reality that exists outside the terms of the discussion altogether. Here we find the unexceptional and ordinary world of the living.
The manufacture of a therapeutic reality, where variety decreases as volume expands, where binary options belie a mutual engrossment, is something we can choose to see or ignore. My sense is that we need fewer hot takes and more new options for conversation.