On Facebook, You Can’t Have Lake Wobegon on Steroids without the “Roid Rage” of Rudeness, Too

Elizabeth Bernstein has a thoughtful and interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal about the troubling incivility, cruelty, and rudeness that many people unleash online, in Comments sections, on Twitter, and on Facebook.


I think that the first problem with online media is that it’s inaugurated the age of indelible bullshit.  This strikes me as the worst of both worlds. Bullshit has its place, so long as it’s an ephemeral, casual, improvisational talk that happens off the record and evaporates the minute it’s spoken. Under these never-lasting circumstances, bullshit is a good incubator to refine and audition our ideas and feelings. That’s Harry Frankfurt’s wonderful argument in his book, On Bullshit

Indelible, eternal speech acts are fine, too—so long as they’re not written like bullshit, such that the Permanent Record becomes an everlasting repository for ideally never-lasting, off the cuff jive.

What do social media give us, though?  We get sometimes thoughtless and rude bullshit content that gets engraved in the indelible Permanent Record online. 

The result is that conversation in social media spaces like Twitter is too often the equivalent of placing a dog turd on a silver platter and preserving it forever in a glass case.

True, as with any other museum relic of dubious enchantment, most people won’t bother to visit your conversational Permanent Record. But they could, and in many cases there’s no taking back the rudeness or witlessness.

I’m partially optimistic. As more and more Americans conduct more of their lives online, we’ll figure out the etiquette.  Maybe.

But Facebook presents some unique social challenges. Bernstein points out via new research by Columbia University professors that Facebook seems to attract as compulsive post-ers people with low self-esteem, who require inordinate affirmation and reassurance. It encourages an inflated presentation of self to the world. This need for affirmation becomes a feedback loop. The Friend needs more and more of it to get the same fix, and is more operatically wounded when her inflated self-image is punctured by rudeness.

In its sunny dimension, Facebook is like Lake Wobegon on steroids. All Facebook children are “above average,” all marriages are awesome and all the creatures in our lives beautiful and brilliant.

In Facebook, life is punctuated with exclamation points!!!, and lived with UPPER CASE, emotional hyperventilation. To borrow an ingenious phrase from my 11-year old, our feelings and emotions in life online are “over-sugared” and jacked up.

Some habitually post pictures of themselves or family portraits with what is all but declared as a ploy to have Friends admire how beautiful they are or tell them how wonderful they must be as spouses or parents.

I’ve seen more than one example of this, where the Friend, with a rather shameless transparency, invites people to praise her hair, or a dress, or her AWESOME family or some other AMAZING thing.

I can’t understand this. In what social setting do you just walk up to people—some of whom, while Friends, are actually strangers—and implore them to tell you that you’re “purty”?

The next time I’m confronted with one of these photos, instead of obediently hitting “Like” and effusing like a trained seal, I’m going to say, “You look tired. Are you getting enough sleep?” Or, “Wow! You guys have really aged!” Or, “I can see that your marital woes are taking a toll on your complexion.”

So, we’ve got this hyper-inflated shiny happy people talk… Then, we’ve got the dark side of that hyped-up praise. We’ve got the snarling hostility, rudeness, and nastiness that Bernstein describes in online conversations.

The important thing to understand is that these co-existing online styles are inseparable.

Even though they feel like opposites—one happy, the other mean; one pro-social, the other not--they’re really flip sides of the same sentimental coin.

The emotional impact of reading “You Suck” differs from that of reading “You Rock.” But these two styles have a shared grammar of emotional hyperbole.  

Like grade inflation, emotional norms are being recalibrated toward the extremes. The octave of everyday speech is climbing higher.

When you open up a channel for insincere, hyperbolic flattery, you inevitably open up a channel for insincere, hyperbolic hatred. We toss out inflated, basically thoughtless praise on a dime. Likewise, we utter inflated, basically thoughtless criticism on a dime, when perhaps we’d offer mild disagreement or a polite rejoinder in life off-line.

One comment flatters us. The other burns us. But the bottom line is that they’re both lazily, emotionally overblown.

In the sentimental republic of America, emotions run the asylum. In social media, people say imprecise positive things that they don’t mean. And they say imprecise negative things that are more hostile and rude than they would say or even feel in a face to face encounter. You can’t get one without the other. On Facebook, friends are neither as awed nor as annoyed by you as their comments might suggest.

Ironically, in this putatively unmediated, spontaneous, and authentic space of communication, we get more hyped and sentimentally distorted talk.

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