The world of the internet is so strange. As a millennial, I’m a part of a culture that remembers life before smartphones, but now knows how to utilize them really well. Even though I have come of age right alongside technology, there is something that still baffles me. And that is how quickly something can go viral.
As a society, we are so desperate for connection, so we jump on any bandwagon we see. If everyone is laughing about a video, we want to share it too. Or if someone is indignant about something, we also need to speak out and share that article. Is it just me, or does it feel like we’re all just racing to make sure our voice is heard so we don’t get lost?
Sometimes this is a positive. Some viral posts are amazing and inspiring, like military family reunion videos, funny baby pictures, or posts reminding us that Oprah wasn’t a huge success at 24 either, so you’re doing okay. These are great examples of using the internet to add some uplifting energy in the world.
However, sometimes viral comments can turn into a hateful vice.
Let’s dive into an example shall we? Unless you live under a rock, you probably know that the Super Bowl happened this weekend. And aside from the commercials and, ya know, the actual football playing, something else major happened on Sunday. Yes, I’m talking about the Halftime Show. The Super Bowl LIV Halftime Show featured Shakira and Jennifer Lopez celebrating their Colombian and Puerto Rican roots as well as the strength and sexiness of the female body through music and dancing.
Personally, I loved the show. But apparently, half of the world had a lot of issues with it.
I say “apparently,” because until I woke up Monday morning, I truly did not hear a bad word about it. I was working during the Super Bowl and all of my coworkers and I were awestruck at how fabulous the show was. And I didn’t hear a single complaint from our guests... but then the viral comments started coming through.
I started seeing posts about it being “like a porn show” or “isn’t this supposed to be family friendly” or “this is America, why didn’t they sing in English.” Which immediately had me jump into defense mode. “It wasn’t a porn show, pole dancing is a legitimate form of dance that you have to be incredibly strong to pull off. ALSO America doesn’t have a national language so why are you mad about them singing in Spanish when about 13% of Americans speak that as their first language. ALSO why can’t they celebrate their culture and their incredible bodies?? ALSO...”
Then, as I was drafting my angry Facebook post sharing all of these thoughts, it hit me. I didn’t actually know a single person who was upset about the show. The posts I wanted to respond to were simply a few comments that had gone viral. All of my friends were already on my side. So who was I trying to reach? I was about to scream into the void of people who agreed with me. And for what? Was this really going to help me feel better?
I was upset and frustrated that something as simple as a few viral comments made me so angry. I don’t want to be fueled by anger, that's not who I want to be.
Not only does it make me sad that I had such a strong reaction, but it made me realize how simple things like this continue to perpetuate a toxic attitude of “us vs. them.”
You either loved the show or hated it. Pick a side. There’s no in between.
Here we’re talking about a performance, but think about politics or religion or abortion or LGBTQ rights or any other highly contested issue. How easy is it for one post or one idea to catch fire online and force you to choose a side? And that leads to arguing with people you don’t even know on a comment thread and sharing impassioned paragraphs about justice and human rights and just a lot of anger and indignation.
Now the world is separated into the people who support the article and the people who contest it. And you’re forced to pick a side and defend it fully. You’re either with us or against us. My way or the highway. I’m right, you’re wrong.
Seeing in only black and white is dangerous when we live in a world of gray.
The viral nature of our world can be toxic. Because if we’re all just racing to make sure our voice is heard louder than the other side, are we ever really listening? We rush to present our opinion without hearing from someone who is different than us. We villainize the other side, so that we can feel more righteous. And to me, this is one of the biggest epidemics in our society today: we’ve forgotten how to understand and listen, therefore, we’ve forgotten how to empathize.
Responding hastily to controversial topics that appear on our viral screens only solidifies your opinions and preaches to your choir. You want to do the hard work? Go have an actual conversation. And in the conversation, commit to striving for understanding.
Because a viral trend will go away in less than a week, but a hateful thing you said can linger forever. And the brokenness of a divided world will take decades and generations to repair.
I’m not saying that you have to stop advocating for your causes or give up your passionate beliefs. Goodness knows I’m not going to do that. I’m also not perfect, and I definitely love sharing my thoughts on my own corner of the internet every once in a while. Really, I just want to work harder at making a difference in the most productive way possible. And I’ve come to learn that arguing with strangers online makes me sad and angry and doesn’t accomplish this goal.
I don’t want to put strangers in a box and argue with them. I want to learn more about humans. All humans, those who agree with me and those who don’t. I want to engage with the world beyond my screen and beyond the trending controversy of today. I want to use platforms to spread good and compassion, not argue with someone who is determined to argue back.
Rather than spreading negativity and division, I want to help make joy go viral. To spread empathy through the world. To actually have everyone give peace a chance. I hope that you’ll join that cause. Because in a viral world that is constantly trying to push us all apart, what a brave choice if we decided to try and bring the world together.