The internet has turned us into zombies

The internet spreads out like a virus. As it becomes ubiquitous, so are its influences. The same slang is shared in all fifty states through the influence of social media, the same arguments are repeated online by people in disparate corners of faraway states, and gradually, the same manner of dress is adopted almost universally. The internet is a force of widespread cultural homogenization much in the same way that the spread of the English language via the British Empire was, only the internet is way more powerful.

As the recent years of lockdowns have proven, we exist in an environment where you can work, eat, sleep, be entertained, and socialize without leaving your home. As the phone swallowed paper maps, calculators, cameras, and more, the internet has consumed ever greater portions of previously physical components of human life. Social media is used by many not to supplement but to replace physical social interactions. Amazon is soon to complete the bludgeoning death of brick-and-mortar retail. What human shape is being molded by a life lived in the frame of the internet?

You will find plenty of differences between various subcultures on the internet. Political factions and subcultures online distinguish themselves by using niche memes to create exclusivity and barriers to entry. The USSR-enthusiast side of X does not use the same memes as the traditional Catholic side of X. However, this seeming uniqueness is deceiving as it rarely indicates genuine individual thought but rather represents conformity to a subset of culture. The very structure of online spaces promotes conformity of thought by identical mechanisms no matter which non-territory one belongs to.

Striving for likes

Say you have an X account. There is instant feedback of “likes” for posts, reflecting what others want to see and hear. Posts are not made in a vacuum; unlike a novelist writing quietly in the confines of his room, the X poster receives immediate reactions to his works. Every “like” affirms his social worth and encourages similarly structured messages. He wants to chase that feeling, that little “zap” of pleasure upon seeing another notification. In seeking to repeat earlier successes, he posts similar content in a similar format, almost necessarily derived from identical thought patterns.

As social beings, the drive to pursue approval from others is nothing new; however, the pervasive, incessant presence of the internet as a social reality is new. People are socially engaged and thus alter their thoughts in response to social pressures, even in the restroom, at red lights, sitting alone in bed, etc. Solitude is a receding territory, like a tectonic plate slowly chewed by the earth into magma, replaced by a panopticon we opt into.

With originality comes risk and often a disappointment. More idiosyncratic beliefs are less likely to receive high praise from a great many people, as they are less likely to be relatable and shared. Cycles of affirmation compel the perpetuation of similar speech and opinion. To combat cognitive dissonance, the mind adopts the beliefs expressed in the public sphere as genuine. These pressures exist in nearly every conscious moment of the slouch-backed social media addict, an increasingly common human type.

As the online world takes up more room in social space, the importance of conformity grows. Approval from others online becomes more critical to psychological well-being as social interaction is relegated to online spaces. Facebook, X, and Instagram become outlets for a stream of consciousness cultivated by the compulsion to be liked. Dependence on approval from your online peers restricts possibilities of thought. Political influencers, like the trite conservative pundits or the shrill overbearing liberal pundits, would risk their livelihoods by changing their opinions in fundamental ways. The average person is increasingly under pressure, similar to the pundit class.

Regular users of social media risk losing acceptance in their online communities, however niche, by straying too far from what is considered acceptable opinion in their spaces. This is the construction of human psychological hives, the reduction of human beings to bees all too content to trade individual thought for community acceptance. This is due to incentive structures created by an online social world with instant feedback loops of rejection and approval. Not only is the hive ever-present, but the signals are instantaneous, which makes for quick training. Pavlov trained dogs to salivate upon ringing a bell by pairing that stimulus with food presentation and fitting the notification symbol across nearly all social media platforms to be shaped like a bell.

Negative comments, praise, likes, and all of this feedback are available the second it happens, making for more effective cognitive training. The “bell” rings exactly when one receives social feedback. This makes for powerful psychological associations that change one’s thinking, one’s cognitive behavior. Beliefs expressed for the underlying purpose of obtaining approval come to be genuinely held, and little joy comes from questioning beliefs required for acceptance within a community. Consequently, there is an adoption of a particular frame of thought that is not of your own making. This environment is increasingly replacing the physical world in terms of where the majority of social interaction takes place, and this has dire consequences for the stability of people’s relationships with others and themselves.

Digital community

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It used to be that a community was located in a physical place composed of a patchwork of people belonging to a particular setting. The social environments in which pre-internet people grew up were rooted in commonalities that extended, root-like into the earth, beyond a shared interest in a product line, a fetish, or ideological commitments. You were from a place, and that place mattered because all of the people you talked to, hung out with, fought with, or dated were also from that same place. In such physical spaces, one’s history with others matters in a way that doesn’t exist online. The memories of time spent with people in physical spaces are tangible to the mind; such memories evoke the senses and possess more feeling, so one’s history and reputation in an actual community are not so fragile as one wrong opinion away from being shattered. The story is different today.

In the modern context, there is little stable foundation for community acceptance and moral certainty. Mainstream views held by many in 2000 (for example, that marriage is strictly between a man and a woman) become deadly to even touch in a matter of a few years. The foundations of online social and moral acceptance are built of sand. People must update their opinions consistently to maintain their standing within their online communities. With each revision of belief, there is less resistance to further alteration; convictions risk becoming scribbles on an Etch A Sketch that are liable to be erased at a moment’s notice. Histories and prior interactions with others matter less for maintaining one’s reputation in the face of controversy because online interactions still lack the impression of reality despite how dramatically they shape us. One does not think about the little profile picture spouting his opinions in written format in the same way that one does a human being in the flesh.

Also, unlike in an actual community, one’s actions, temperament, and all the inexpressible traits that make a person’s substance are largely irrelevant. What is real is what is posted online, primarily just selective expression. It’s not what you do; it’s what you say that matters in the modern “community.” Acceptance, then, in an online world, to a great extent, means agreement. The spread of sycophancy is like a virus. And you’re trained to love it as a drone in a hive.

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