The Case for a More Human Internet

Online, it has felt like there is no space for the self-doubt and self-loathing that has competed against anger inside me for two years.

“I am not an avatar, a set of preferences, or some smooth cognitive force; I’m lumpy and porous, I’m an animal, I hurt sometimes, and I’m different one day to the next. I hear, see, and smell things in a world where others also hear, see, and smell me.”
Jenny Odell,
How To Do Nothing

In How To Do Nothing, Jenny Odell refers to the effect algorithms have on us as entombment – we get stranded in singular versions of ourselves. Spotify, Facebook, Twitter, even Uber and Zomato are designed to break our personhood down into a series of choices and preferences – and then to double down on those to keep us engaged. Most of the time, this convenience is wonderful, but it is also ossifying and ultimately encourages us to understand our own selves as flatly as AI does. Sad songs lead to more sad songs, my favourite comfort food order floats on top of the screen every time I open the delivery app, Twitter and Facebook drown me in trauma porn or poorly researched mental health advice.

This emotional tunnel vision mimics the effects of depression, where we get stuck in specific narratives of isolation and struggle to see beyond them. One bad day, or even a series of bad days doesn’t mean that life will be bad for all the rest of my days, but it’s really difficult to believe that when I’m drowning in narratives that present trauma as a permanent albatross I’ll carry around my neck forever.

To be on the internet is to run into this feeling frequently. A graphic MeToo account on Twitter will send me tumbling into the haze before I’ve even had time to fully register the words. An Instagram post that simply lists signs of depression will drain me almost as soon as I start reading the pastel-coloured text on my phone. It could be the daily death toll, updates on the migrant crisis, the death of a celebrity, a meme tainted with the memory of someone you’ve lost, blog posts by people who were laid off. There’s no telling how many things will prick us on any given day.

Not every trigger is made equal. For me, it’s assault. The MeToo movement catalysed a global conversation, showed women our experiences are painfully common, not shamefully unique, and paved the way for institutional changes. But for me, as I grappled with my own story privately, it also raked up convoluted questions about how to live in the wake of trauma that is both collective and particular.

There is so much we don’t get to say online for fear of the narrative prisons it will put us in. Rage against the patriarchy and descriptions of trauma offer neat narrative arcs for public litigation, but our realities are far messier. The post-MeToo narrative inevitably focuses on consequences for accused men – the conviction of Harvey Weinstein, the return of Louis CK. These are men who produced victims at an industrial scale, exhibiting pathological misogyny. Most of us have experienced assault and harassment differently — in trusting relationships, tight-knit families, from men who haven’t mass-produced victims, and those who enjoy stellar reputations and the friendship of widely-admired women; by strangers we cannot identify well enough to report, and the policemen who are meant to help us. And these cases have been much harder to adjudicate legally and even informally, leaving us in awkward half-resolved situations with friends, coworkers and family. As most of us have found, it’s a monumental task to weigh the hurt we feel against the harm we want to cause our perpetrator as retribution. Unsurprisingly, prison or criminal proceedings haven’t been the answer for everyone.


Photo: Reuters, Illustration: The Wire

The things that have helped me 

It doesn’t have to be the same for everyone, but the things that have helped me struggle out of loneliness have not been online. Online, it has felt like there is no space for the self-doubt and self-loathing that has competed against anger inside me for two years. Any such acknowledgement has invariably been met with templatised messages of love and empowerment, mixed in with advice about how to assert agency over my problematic thoughts – all of which conveniently frame these as individual problems and not the nearly ubiquitous issues they actually are. Complicated, conflicting emotions are what make us human, not flat, unchanging opinions, but it’s easy to forget that when the most prominent narratives surrounding us either focus on fixing men or outline measures to fix ourselves.

All I’ve wanted these past two years is the assurance that one horrible event, which I had no control over, wasn’t going to define my life, but that’s not something social media could deliver because it’s designed to prioritise standalone experiences, not the constant churning of our thoughts. Instead, I found what I was looking for in fiction, where we can traditionally explore the troubling things we feel we can’t say out loud. This is a short list of the characters that have enabled me to be kinder to myself – Celeste Wright and Jane Chapman in Big Little Lies, Aimee Gibbs and all the friends who took the bus with her in Sex Education, and Eleanor Oliphante in Eleanor Oliphante Is Completely Fine.

Aimee Lou Wood as Aimee Gibbs in Sex Education.

And I found it in friends who took the time to cook new things with me, discussed new movies and shows, just hung out when I didn’t have the energy to chat, went on walks and brunches, swiped on Hinge with me, and gave me a piece of their minds when I was being awful – all the things we do when see a full person, not some templatised identity. There was also comfort in workspaces that allowed for days when I felt slow and foggy, or appeared to be ‘off’ in some way – without asking for explanations or awkward disclosures. Ultimately, the fate of my perpetrator has not changed my life, being part of friendships and workplaces that accommodate rough days and see me as more than a victim has.

Feeling whole in lockdown

In lockdown, as most other people have felt crushed by the pandemic and its accompanying disasters, I have felt whole in a way I never expected to feel again. I thought I would dissolve from the loneliness of being away from the people and activities that have kept me going post-assault. Instead, I’ve found myself free of the pressures to perform or not perform any particular version of survivor-hood. In the absence of an outside gaze and its expectations (both online and off), my sense of self has ceased to feel like a battleground. I have had low days in peace, without the added exertion of trying to appear normal at work or in social situations; I haven’t had to grapple with the question of if or when to disclose my history to a date and a million other tiny things that were adding up without my conscious knowledge pre-lockdown. It’s helped me take my critical lens and turn it outwards instead of inwards. My main question has gone from “Why can’t I feel better?” to “What’s out there that was making me feel so run down?”

The ways we talk about things online don’t originate out of thin air, they’re born in the ‘real’ world we inhabit. Trauma and human interest stories about it don’t just grab eyeballs on Instagram or Twitter, they’ve also been the bread and butter of news media for decades. The things I’ve felt online have, in some ways, been digital analogues of the pain I was feeling offline too – they were just more difficult to spot because it’s harder to identify a trigger when it’s not coming at you in a row on a screen.

If we’re going to talk about reformative justice and making a better world, then can we centre women instead of focusing solely on the rehabilitation of men? Can we open up mainstream spaces for women to express more than just anger or sadness? Can there be space to discuss dating and sex post-assault, how to be a friend or employer to someone who is depressed, how to handle the random reemergence of triggers, and how not to reduce a person to victimhood?

We can’t really make spaces safer for women by eradicating men, neat as that sounds. Men aren’t the root of the problem, the structures we live in are – and those don’t vanish if we remove friends from WhatsApp groups, send an accused perpetrator to work remotely, or explain to men why their actions were hurtful to women. We make spaces more women-friendly by centering women – by ensuring they stay in the workforce, by introducing laws that protect women and not simply ones that punish men for a crime already committed, by teaching people how to actually support someone who is traumatised and not just ‘self-defence’ classes – by not painting womanhood or survivor-hood as the problem that needs solving.

As the pandemic forces us to move more of our lives and selves online, we’re going to be especially susceptible to performing specific (read: singular) versions of ourselves on social media. It’s going to be much harder to maintain the nuances between the funny friend-version of you with the focused professional-version of you because everyone from every sphere of your life is going to congregate in one place. And it’s going to be even harder to resist platforms’ persuasive tools that incentivise one kind of sharing over another.

As the pandemic forces us to move more of our lives and selves online, we’re going to be especially susceptible to performing specific (read: singular) versions of ourselves on social media. Photo: Sergey Zolkin/Unsplash, (CC BY-SA)

When the world opens up again, we’ll have the chance to remake some aspects of it. The Internet is deservedly a lifeline for many of us, offering community and support when we’re at our most vulnerable and isolated. But it, like the people who make and use it, is not 100% good and has the ability to confirm our worst insecurities and introduce new fears. The emotional see-saw I’ve been on since the MeToo movement first took off is just one example of the pain we make and consume online. Making things so others see themselves in your art and your words is great, but we have the capacity to identify with a whole range of emotions, so why does suffering or empowerment of the pink-washed, corporate variety dominate our newsfeeds? Can we have space for art that makes us question how we’re living and see possibilities that we couldn’t have seen without it?

Each day of this pandemic is filled with newer triggers and suffering that can make us feel permanently suspended in one specific state (usually, distress). As we emerge into an increasingly grief-stricken world, so many of us are going to struggle to balance our individual narratives with a larger, global one. And we won’t really find good ways to do it unless we start by acknowledging that we need a kinder, more spacious, more human internet.

Nehmat Kaur is a freelance writer and an MBA candidate at the University of Oxford. She tweets at @nehmatks.