The Internet can really suck. I think it’s about time someone who is not a Luddite or a crazy person said it. And it’s true, almost inarguably: the Internet is, in its most popular manifestations and uses, NOT a force for kindness, self-esteem, confidence or happiness, in general or the specific. The thing about the Internet is that it is a reflection of the destructive tendencies of our own minds—its predilections and weaknesses are our predilections and weaknesses and so are the predilections and weaknesses of our new culture; the name-calling, the egoism, the unrelenting cynicism, the anti-moral pursuits of empty achievements like celebrity, money, fame, and blog-to-book deals. These are all unequivocally bad things. And, not unimportantly, the endlessly cyclical existence of desire provides for the cultural structure that has given rise to public figures who think that concepts like “hope” and “change” are taunts, instead of the important realities of modern individual well being that they are. That is exactly how cynical the year 2010 is.
So what? That sentence before last was pretty political, and why should you read on, why should anyone take into their consciousness another unprofessional scree about the shitter that we’re all in because of technology and its enabling of our worst tendencies? Well, no one should have to read another one of those. Which is why instead, I’m going to offer some practical tips not on how to boycott the Internet and its social media but on how to be happy with it, tips which happen to derive from a very skinny, very nice little Indian man who lived several thousand years ago.
Buddhist meditation might be seen as the opposite of the Internet. Where the Internet values multi-tasking, Buddhist meditation values extreme focus. Where the internet values constant streams of information, Buddhist meditation asks you to pay attention to all that is not news or updates: to the awareness of your very existence outside of the spin of your mind’s information processing centers. But to the Dalai Lama and to the Buddha himself, the way to inner happiness is not by quitting the Internet or refusing to participate in its social systems. Instead, here are 8 tips for how to use the same things (Twitter, Blogging, Facebook, Videogames, etc) differently, with the goal of breaking the cycle of afflictive emotions and inevitable unhappiness that the Internet will nurture within you if you let it. Here is the eightfold path to Internet happiness:
1. ACCEPT THAT THE INTERNET DOES NOT INHERENTLY EXIST.
Of course the Internet does not exist for us anymore the way it probably did for people back in the years just after it sprang out of Al Gore’s forehead, but it’s important to understand that not only does the Internet no longer exist as a limited, definable exterior entity, it doesn’t exist inherently at all. Imagine how you would answer this question: what is the Internet? You would probably answer that the Internet is Facebook, is Twitter, is Gmail and Youtube. Or, if you were an annoying English grad student type, you might answer more accurately that the Internet is an electronic means of transmitting information and media between billions of users all over the world. But all of this is really saying the same thing: the Internet is a use, not a being. When you say that ‘the Internet’ has given someone fame or money, as in the case of accidental Youtube stars or bloggers with book deals (or when you say that ‘the Internet’ has been cruel to someone, as in the case of naked pictures or sound-bytes that won’t go away) what you’re really talking about is other people, and what use they look to the Internet to function towards. ‘The Internet’ is nothing more than a series of connections, a vast ocean of code, behind which exists only yourself and other people. The way you use and think about the Internet is a part of your being, and the being of others. You cannot separate the Internet from people, and the Internet cannot give you anything that is not from another human being. The way you treat the Internet is inseparable, then, from the way you are treating other people. True and literal morality and ethics apply more meaningfully to your interactions with the Internet than in any other zone of modern life.
2. ACCEPT THAT THE INTERNET IS THE SOURCE OF YOUR SUFFERING.
It’s not hard to prove that the Internet can have extremely negative effects on the literal life and death of many people today. The fact that any teenager has ever committed suicide because of the pervasive, identity-defining bullying and torture that is uniquely possible via the Internet, or that, as was the case last year, a live action suicide by overdose has ever occurred on a web cam while a chat-audience egged the victim on (none of them calling 911 until it was too late) is proof enough of this power. But these are the most extreme examples. Those are the most grotesque corners of the Internet, and it is overwhelmingly likely that they don’t have a daily effect on you or me. Instead, what I’m trying to call your attention to is two other truths about the internet: the things about it that you probably think make you happy are empty, and the net effect of all the blogs, websites, and social media is one of sadness. I don’t know about you but things like comment trolls, flameouts and fanboy wars make me depressed. Reading blogs like Lamebook are like paying money to have sex: enjoyable at first, but also the source of a vague, lingering sadness after. More than that even, things like Facebook and Twitter can reveal to you realities you didn’t even know you were sad about: people bragging proudly under pictures of infants posed with guns or liquor, people being completely unable or unwilling to spell correctly, Republican politicians or other celebrities dropping 140 character messages that dash any hopeful, lingering doubt as to their bigotry or idiocy or shallowness. It is because of the Internet that you know to be sad about all of this. And even when I think about the things that the Internet has supposedly brought me that make me happy, I can’t avoid their true and sad nature. I might love that beautiful short story that @colsonwhitehead linked to by @elliottholt in Guernica Magazine, but when I think that I’m glad the Internet could bring me that I can also only think the following: Why didn’t I care enough to keep astride of what Elliott Holt was doing to know that she had a new story out? I like Elliott Holt! Elliott Holt is really nice! Why didn’t I know that? And why, instead of talking to her or writing her a real message to say how beautiful I thought her story was, did I just re-tweet the link? And why didn’t I just buy Guernica Magazine in the first place, instead of pretending to support it, reading what it had to offer and then for that very reason deciding not to buy it and failing to financially support the direction of literature in the United States? And why does it take someone more famous like @colsonwhitehead mentioning someone less famous like @elliottholt to make a large number of people actually read that story in the first place? Here’s two other (shorter) examples: I really loved getting to see pictures of my new little niece playing in the snow, which was made possible by Facebook, but it is precisely because I’ve been enabled to “participate” in her life via Facebook without actually participating in it that I didn’t go and visit her in person the last time I was in town. Or, I love Epilogue Magazine and the opportunity to write here, but it is precisely because of the pure ease of the editors’ altruism in allowing me to write here at all that I haven’t felt compelled to buy an Epilogue t-shirt yet, even though the design is awesome and I’d be ashamed to admit this to Corban or Marshall face to face. You get the idea. If you think about it, the Internet is making you sad, and if you don’t think about it, the Internet is making you sad without you realizing it.
3. ACCEPT THAT YOU CAN CHANGE THAT.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The following is a story I have heard the Dalai Lama tell, word for word: A regular man was walking through the streets of Llhasa (the capital of Tibet) when he came across a Buddhist monk meditating. “What are you doing?” the man asked. “Meditating on patience,” the monk replied. “Well then eat shit!” the regular man said. “No, YOU eat shit!” the monk replied. I’m not kidding; I heard the Dalai Lama tell this story, just like that.
The point of the story is that even though the Buddhist monk has nominally accepted that one must culture peaceful mindfulness in order to gain the virtue of patience with the world, he obviously has not taken the teaching of the virtuousness of patience to his own heart. Similarly, intellectually conceding that the Internet can be used for good is not enough. Everyone knows that in situations like the recent one in Haiti, the speed and efficacy of the Internet resulted in faster and better aid for those suffering. However, you must go beyond that. You must look for this betterment first (like the Buddhist monk in the story should) in yourself. I can give you some suggestions on how to start:
4. TWEET FOR GOOD
This begins by renouncing the central article of Twitter faith: that Twitter is life. Twitter is not life. It is especially not real life. There is no @colsonwhitehead; there is only Colson Whitehead, the author of the wonderful, genuinely written book The Intuitionist, among others. There is no @elliottholt; there is only Elliott Holt, the very nice woman who gave up the ruthless capitalism of an Advertising agency to create fiction, and whose mother, elegized often and beautifully in her writing, died from cancer. There is not even @epilogue_mag; instead there is only Marshall Rake and Corban Goble (not @marshallrake and @chgoble), who have heroically brought into being a small, good thing for no other reason than that they care about art and music and their generation. Your tweets are not your thoughts; they’re not your sense of humor. What they are is an opportunity to share information, to make jokes (as long as it’s with the understanding that these jokes mean nothing about who you really are), and an opportunity to get out of your own head and to care about other people. This is, after all, the original promise of Twitter: to develop community. After my grandfather died, strangely the condolence that meant the most to me was a tweeted one from Will Donnelly (again, real person, not @Will_Donnelly), a writer whom I’ve met once in my entire life, and whose story I’d once told him I’d loved. His simple act of compassion and interpersonal humaneness moved me more than any more socially predictable condolence, and it is still the one I remember most often. That is the kind of thing you should be aiming to do with Twitter. Be nice. Be compassionate. Give up the snark. If you don’t have something that adds something positive to our species to Tweet, then don’t Tweet anything at all.
5. BLOG TO LEARN
People forget that the word ‘Blog’ comes from the compound ‘weblog’, which comes from the idea of keeping a record of activity so as to enlighten or inform those who are also interested in said activity. The blog was never meant to be the activity itself. The blog was never meant to be what you did when you got bored. In fact, the original promise of the Blog was the opposite of boredom. It was supposed to be a way for people to learn things that they could productively apply to their own lives. Accordingly, here are some helpful guidelines on when you should create a blog:
When you have something original to offer.
When you have something productive to offer.
When you have the knowledge or opportunity to help someone.
When you have a chance to create a venue to which other people can contribute or receive useful knowledge or experience from.
And here are some guidelines on what blogs you should STOP READING:
Those that have as their primary project the derision of others.
Those that are divisive, or that play to a single audience.
Those that do not make you happy.
Those that make you happy only at the expense of others.
Those that are not fun, in the lighthearted, elementary school sense of the word.
But creating and/or frequenting blogs that do not add to the general misery is not enough. There is also another step:
6. STOP COMMENTING
The inherently destructive, sadness-making nature of commenting is easily understood by grasping the following two truths:
Nothing bad can happen to you if you refrain from making your opinion known to everyone at all times.
Nothing really good can come from insisting on making your opinion known to everyone at all times.
The annoying English graduate student from earlier in this discussion might pipe up with the idea that ‘enlightened’ and thoughtful commenting on an online piece of writing is constructive and conducive to good, vigorous discussion. What I would say to that is that I’m not entirely sold on the idea that Internet discussion, even “thoughtful”, “enlightening” commenting, is such an inherently valuable thing. Instead, what I mainly see is the following two problems:
The very existence of comment threads is what allows the infection of trolls, flaming, fanboys, anonymous, cowardly opinionated stances and all the worst that the Internet’s social interaction has to offer.
The very existence of comment threads is what robs the act of creation, of thought and experience and opinion laid bare on the medium of the Internet of any possible respect. It says to the reader that there is no difference between creation and critique; that one need not pay attention to the difference in effort between those two things, and that’s it’s OK to be cruel and mean if you want to.
7. TURN YOUR VOLUME OFF
Here is that other great interaction the Internet has enabled: the ability of one person in the comfort of their own home to kill/score on/compete with other people in the comfort of their own home who happen to have an XBOX or PlayStation 3. Here’s the most Buddhist way to play videogames: with the sound off. Not only does this take away the completely negative chatter of those other players with microphones, but it also refocuses the experience of videogames on the core happiness of playing a game. A good example of this is the best selling modern competitive videogame of all time, Modern Warfare 2. Here is how you can be happy with that game: stop paying attention to ranks, achievements, points and standings. Those things were created to give the player a false sense of interest and cynical motivation when said player begins to be bored with the game play. They don’t actually mean anything. They don’t actually give you anything. Play with the weapons and modes and people you want to, the ones you have the most fun with, no matter whether or not they will give you a useless little emblem by your name. Modern Warfare 2 in particular even has a very Buddhist feature in its climax. Much like how the Buddhist monks destroy upon completion the beautiful, complex colored sand Mandalas that they spend hours creating, one’s achievements and rank in MW2 completely reset once you reach the pinnacle amount of points. The point of videogames was never to talk shit, or to bring shit-talking ten year olds and shit-talking forty-five year olds together in simulated reality. There is nothing wrong with the advent of online, competitive, interactive gaming. But don’t let it distract you from the core experience of gaming: having fun.
8. REMEMBER THE ALTRUISTIC FACEBOOK
Facebook is the gateway drug to all social media, and so of all these tips, this is the most important one, and the most telling instance of a force for good that has gone awry thanks to the sadness of the web. The word Facebook (as well as the concept) comes from the American collegiate tradition of the Freshman Facebook, a booklet that each new freshman would receive when they started college and that featured pictures and a few brief details about the other freshman students. The idea was to take the period of greatest vulnerability in a new student’s life and make it a little better, a little easier to make friends and get to know people. The Freshman Facebook was a crowning achievement of the socially altruistic spirit that once pervaded America and its younger generations, a publication created and perpetuated by the genuinely good-willed feelings of a group of people struggling to interact with each other. It urged students to know each other and to be involved in one another’s lives. The original digital Facebook shared this goal. The current Facebook, however, is now little more than a cesspit of fake farming, fake mafia, keg-stand pictures and inane quizzes, the strong-arm of memes that serve to reveal only the extent to which your friends, family and coworkers are willing to be controlled by reasonless, inhuman forces. I’m putting the emphasis on fakeness here because it is this idea that is most degrading to the original spirit of the digital Facebook and, I might argue, the digital community in general. The Internet was never supposed to change us. The avatar of a Facebook profile was never supposed to stand in for and eventually replace actual community; it was supposed to enable and enhance it. Instead of friendships we have Lamebook entries. Instead of meaningful content we have the shallow affirmation of a “Like” button. It doesn’t have to be like this. Facebook still (and always will) have the potential to be a profoundly positive force in maintaining family, friendly and general bonds between individuals. But you have to delete the games. You have to say real things about yourself and your interests in your profile. You have to post pictures you care about. Your feelings about your Facebook should come from your friends and yourself, not from game scores, the content of comments and the groups you’re in. Don’t do things on Facebook that don’t have real meaning; don’t do things on Facebook that don’t have a point. Maybe most importantly, don’t mistake the access that Facebook and the Internet in general grants for real life. There is no Facebook. There is no Internet. There is only you, and everyone facing you. Treat others with kindness and the Internet for the nothingness that it is, and you will find the happiness that you seek.
The Art of Internet Happiness: Buddhist Thought and the Digital Suck