Internet Toxicity: Has Our Digital Age Caused Us To Lose Our Humanity?

With the age of the Internet, we have become accustomed to having endless amounts of information at our fingertips. No longer are the days of paper map books, phone books, or even dictionaries. With a simple click, anything we could ever want or need to know is in front of us.

The same can be said for our connections to each other. Those friends that we used to lose touch with after high school are now still reachable through social media, even if all we do is share the occasional ‘like’ or ‘retweet’. Our digital age and the world of social media has broken down barriers of information restriction in both academic and personal frontiers, giving us free reign to follow along in the lives of others. Like silent stalkers, peering through our computer and phone screens, we can trace along another’s actions simply by their (and our own, admittedly) obsession with sharing every detail of our lives on the Internet. We no longer have to call each other or ever meet in person for people to become important, daily parts of our lives.

For instance, in the world of celebrity, social media has erased the previously tangible line between fame and fan. With the invention of Instagram and Twitter, fans now have a connection to their favorite actors, musical artists and more simply by hitting a ‘follow’ button on a screen. They open up their lives to us like never before, interacting from what should be a safe and comfortable distance; still giving us inside access, but with a sense of distance that is needed for their own sanity.

But in this new age of information overload, have we lost our true sense of connection?

Fans are no longer simply fans. If you are not a ‘stan’ (stalker fan), your devotion to the artist is somehow pulled into question. The ability to follow our faves online has given many a sense of ownership; a sense of right bordering on obsession. In this, celebrities find themselves inundated with tweets, comments and requests like no example of ‘fan mail’ could ever compare. Nothing they give ever seems to be enough, no actions meet our endless demand, and what was originally meant to be an incredible access has become an exhausting burden.

As I cover the One Direction fandom, I will use an observation from this particular group as an example. Now, the 1D fandom has quite a reputation, and while I am part of it, I can admit the negative connotation that many take offense to has been rightfully earned. Fans attack those who question the dominance and all consuming power of the group, collective or individual, the ‘stan’ mentality reaching another level entirely.

When 1D announced the single ‘Infinity’ would be released, fans protested. Loudly, frequently and harshly. They wanted a different tune, ‘History’, to be the next single despite a video already being prepared for ‘Infinity.’ And while in the past fans opinions and veritable foot stomping would have gone unanswered, in a digital age it is difficult to silence such frenzy. So much so that not long after the original announcement, the 1D camp announced that ‘History’ would be the next single, video and all. Fans were ecstatic, but it wasn’t long before that still wasn’t enough. Now, they wanted the video for ‘Infinity’ as well. Still, years after their hiatus began, fans are still calling for the video they first vetoed to be released.

Given an inch, but still wanting a mile.

Anyone online who questions the band is attacked with venom, incidents such as that with Australian DJ Ash London following a less-than-respectful comment on member Louis Tomlinson. Before the interview began, London had introduced Tomlinson as ‘the least popular’ and referred to him as ‘ratty’. Now, while this is in no way appropriate or condoned, the response from the 1D fandom reached a frenzied level of attack. London was forced to put her social media on private to limit the access of Tommo supporters.

While I in no way think London’s comments are appropriate, was the response of the fandom the right route to justice? The hateful and clawing comments dealt online in any instance such as this are unlike anything any person would truly say to another if met face to face. Now, while the general collective can admit to a less filtered form of communication in daily life, nothing seems to meet the unrestricted vitriol that one sees online.

Terms such as ‘keyboard warrior’ have been penned to explain this backlash; the tendency to lash out at anyone with a differing opinion. No longer is rationality and calm conversation a part of disagreement in the online world; now, it is who can sling the most mud in winning fashion.

A ‘non fandom’ example of this could be the recent effects of the plane ‘seat switch love story’ that took Twitter by storm several weeks ago. While traveling with her boyfriend, a woman asked her seat mate to switch so the two could sit together. The person agreed, being seated next to a man who the woman believed would have a lot in common. She then proceeded to ‘document’ their interactions via social media, commenting on their exchanges and commonalities. Instances such as this have happened many times online, including ‘bad dates’, ‘first dates’ and ‘breakups’, giving us a sneaky ‘fly on the wall’ look at others struggles from the safety of our couches with our laptops. But this particular instance reached viral level, even causing the literary Twitter world to beg for stories of this trope.

But the woman posting the sweet story took it a little far, posting a photo of the couple to her social. Another modern day example of crossing a line with the use of the Internet, losing the ‘human’ touch in the interaction. While she had blocked out their faces, most people know now that the FBI is weak when matched against an online troll in finding someone if they so choose. It didn’t take long for both parties to be identified, and inundated with messages, comments and more. The original poster of the interaction took to the viral excitement as her 15 minutes of fame, as did the man involved. However, the woman politely asked, repeatedly, to be excluded from the narrative. Unfortunately, people love to empty others emotional buckets, and a hateful war of words began. Comments calling the woman derogatory terms came in endless rain, turning the entire experience from hopefully romantic, to horrifically tragic.

It is in this type of interaction that the lack of humanity is best noted. The type of comments strewn at this woman are the kind that no person (I would hope) would ever say to another (especially a stranger). But, with the protective barrier of anonymity and a keyboard, there is no longer a sense of respect or compassion when it comes to others.

Fangirlish knows this all too well, as we have been the subject of many, many, many attacks for our opinions on fandom. Stans are passionate, which can be incredible. But that same passion can lead to obsessive self righteousness, which can be toxic and hate filled against those who disagree with their beliefs. And while the concept of ‘agree to disagree’ is still one we strongly believe in, it seems that in an online world where you are no longer held accountable for our actions, the ideal is no longer held to mean anything. It is all about winning, about pulling the other down to make yourself stand taller on their broken backs, all for the self satisfaction of being right.

We no longer have to speak to each other to communicate. We no longer have to face another to have meaningful connections. We no longer have to fantasize about our favorite celebrities from a distance, wondering what their homes, loves, lives look like. Social media and the endless possibilities of the Internet have given us inside access to everything we could want and more, but with that it has erased the fragile art of communication, of respect, and our basic humanity in favor of this free flow of information.

Fandom is meant to bring people together under the common thread of love for a medium. The same can be said for the Internet as a whole, connecting people in ways we never thought possible. Many of our best friends are now people we have never actually met, but that does not diminish their impact or place in our lives. But for those who choose to lash out at others through their screens, I implore you to remember that there really are people on the other side. People who you may not agree with, but people nonetheless. Celebrities living their lives under a microscope, which becomes a magnifying glass under the sun when social media attacks are brought into the mix to burn them like ants simply for making a choice to date someone you don’t like, make a comment you disagree with, or live their lives their way. Stan culture, and the Internet as a whole, does not give you the right to bully, berate, threaten or break down the person on the other side, no matter the instance.

Anonymity is the black cape of the dark side of the Internet. It is a comment told to me by a friend (E.R., for credit) and couldn’t be more true. The keyboard is our cloak of invisibility, and through it we find excitement in the possibility of mischief. But to make one last 1D reference, quoting the incomparably kind Harry Styles:

Treat people with kindness.

Because in the end, you never truly know what they are going through. And you might have the power to make or break them more than you realize.

RN, writer, artist, blogger, 1D fangirl extraordinaire. Twitter: @unrealismbooks | Wattpad: @kristimcm | kristimcm