The internet: the collective thoughts of a species.
The word, Kotodama, is a Japanese word that roughly translates to “the spirit or the power of language.” It is the belief that words can influence our environment, our minds, our bodies and our souls.
In many ways, it’s simply speaking to the power of symbols–for words are symbols, just as capable of evoking the same mental imagery that a raised fist of solidarity or the American flag might (I’m sure just by reading those words your mind found itself summoning up these images of resistance and freedom).
In this same sense, the hashtags and phrases that trend on social media are not merely inert utterances bound to the limitations of a webpage. They carry a power, a spirit, an inertia that allows them to transcend the digital, entering the minds of millions, physically impacting reality by causing synapses and neurons to activate in contemplation, setting the stage for the majority of the very tangible–and potentially lifechanging–conversations happening at office watercoolers, cafes, and bars all over the world. To go viral in this day and age is to literally dominate the consciousness of the species, to force the whole world to think and talk about the same thing for a span of time in which new opinions and life perspectives can be formed that will forever alter the actions of individuals, thusly changing the trajectory of our entire species. To control the conversation is to control the culture.
Thus I do not think it too hyperbolic to suggest that we take deadly seriously care when deciding what content we’ll choose to lift up to the limelight; for it seems that each of our clicks, likes, and shares are capable of causing momentous shifts—much like snowflakes for an avalanche or the ripples for a tsunami, these social media interactions are our personal votes that declare what we’d like the whole world to focus on.
This tells our friends and community members how we’re feeling—what’s most important to us—and therefore often nudges us to lean in different directions to ensure we stand with our peers to oppose or support their same moods or ideologies. From an evolutionary psychology point of view, this is one of the most natural reactions we can have, for we believe if we disagree with those who accept us, they’ll no longer accept us; and then we’ll be exiled from the tribe, cast out to the cold, forced to fend for ourselves, to face the depth of our consciousness in quiet solitude; in short, we’ll suffer alone–the ultimate fear.
This psychological affinity for “jumping on the bandwagon” creates momentum for the kind of conversations that nearly elected Bernie Sanders and that did indeed elect Donald Trump—two candidates who in many ways are the embodiment of viral memes; two candidates who would likely never have even been in the running (a socialist and a reality tv star) had it not been for the power of each of us to lift them up.
And this power hasn’t been restricted to electing presidents. It’s overthrown a government in Egypt, helped legalize marijuana in many US states, and has brought the rights of women, immigrants, African Americans, and the LGBTQ community into much-needed focus. Civil rights are now fought for with hashtags.
This is the importance our voice holds online. We are not simply filling up a news feed with content that we like; we are making declarations about our characters to the world; we are saying “this is so important to me that I want it to spread throughout the species.” And in many cases, spread it will, for better or worse.
We can be poisonous contagions that stupefy, distract, and oppress; or, we can be champions of humanity creating wakes of empathy and compassion.
Therefore–knowing that our digital presence can impact our real world relationships, alter our biology and perspectives, and even steer the mindset of our communities–I’d like to address two types of people I’ve seen increasingly dominate my news feed as of late, and the dangers they pose to the stability of our civilization.
I do this in the hopes that such awareness will help motivate our willpower, aiding us in our attempt to inspire a healthier and safer society by helping us catch ourselves when we’re being heralds of arrogance, selfishness, and animosity.
The angry, echo-chamber radical
Unfortunately, this seems to be the most common personality I run into these days, and it’s so dangerous that I believe if anything will cause our society to collapse, this will be it.
Whether you’re a conservative Republican or a liberal Democrat—or hopefully somewhere in between—it seems we’ve become so obsessed with being the biggest and best champion for our particular social agenda that we’ve stopped challenging ourselves to grow and think in new ways. We desire so badly to be the best Trump or Antifa supporter, the best vegan or Earth activist, etc, that we’ve stopped practicing empathy and stopped being open-minded to information that may not directly support what we believe to be the “right” thing.
We get rid of any friends or pages on Facebook that disagree with us, ensuring that we only ever have to read things that make us feel like we’re correct about everything. It becomes a masturbation echo-chamber, where subcultures sit there and tell each other how smart and wonderful we are without ever asking each other to think. Not surprisingly, this stupefies every single person in the echo chamber—because now we’re only getting a one-sided view of the world, making us biased radicals who experience cognitive dissonance and extreme anger whenever facts that contradict our opinions appear. “How could that possibly be true!” we scream. “Every person I know doesn’t believe that!”
And that’s probably an accurate statement—but that’s because that’s how we’ve curated our social groups. We get rid of every person who disagrees with us because we don’t like being challenged.
Because of these echo chambers and our ability to look up information online, we now believe we have all the answers, that we’re the experts because we’re able to Google something and eventually find an article that supported our hunch. We’ll go to the doctor who’s studied for a decade and tell him he’s wrong because we have access to WebMD. We’ll deny climate change in spite of 97% of the world’s smartest and most well-educated people declaring it a fact just because we can surround ourselves with information and people who support the remaining 3%.
And now we simply declare anything that doesn’t agree with us “fake news”.
It’s like putting your fingers in your ears yelling “AHHHHH! I CAN’T HEAR YOU, I CAN’T HEAR YOU” every time someone asks you to think for yourself, to think critically.
The problem here is that in our arrogance and our need to be right and knowledgeable about everything, we’ve removed the gray area where debates and compromise happen, where the truth usually exists, and where respect exists.
The realm where progress exists.
If we can’t live in the gray area, we’ve lost the ability to learn and to be compassionate, a situation that will ultimately lead to hatred, violence, and likely war. And that’s what we’ve done by sequestering ourselves into these radical echo chambers—we’ve created a society that will bash each other silly with our self-righteous and outdated ideas as the world around us burns. And it will continue this way until we have the courage and integrity to accept that we don’t have all the answers, that we could use a new and fresh perspective, that maybe the way we’ve been operating needs to change.
The site “Red Feed Blue Feed” is a perfect example of this, showing how much the news and trending topics on Facebook are skewed to support each radicalized group, ensuring both sides get more and more biased versions of reality that push us further and further apart.
Depressing Sensationalist News Source of One
This is the doom-sayer, the too-addicted-to-dystopian-and-apocalypse person who seems to automatically assume every setback in the world, whether it’s a bad law, the death of a famous person, a terrorist attack, or bad weather is a sign that the world is ending.
These people are dangerous because they carry the momentum set forth by demagogues, dictators, government officials of all kind, and often advertisers as well. They empower those benefitting from the chaos caused by echo-chamber radicals. They make you feel like the world is going to shit because when a few of them continually show up in your news feed, you actually start to think that maybe the world really is in a downward spiral. They depress us, making us more susceptible to manipulation. These are the “if it bleeds it leads” type of citizen reporters, acting just like mainstream media and only sharing information about the world that constantly makes you scared, making you think everyone is doing heroine and that a terrorist attack is looming just around the corner in a city near you. In short, they are stupefying you by triggering your amygdala, putting you in fight-or-flight mode by short-circuiting your prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain that thinks critically). And in our fear, we turn to those who agree with us for the sake of security, and then we dig ourselves deeper, and deeper, and deeper into a radical mindset that brings about our self-fulfilling prophecy of conflict (thus becoming echo-chamber radicals).
In this state, we live in a state of hated for everyone who is different than us simply because they’re not in our group and therefore represent an unknown that reminds us of our fear and inability to control reality.
It’s for this reason we need to train ourselves to not get washed away in the emotional triggers that politicians are throwing at us, why we need to take breaks from social media when we’re worked up, stepping back to take a few deep breaths that will calm our emotion and allow us to see the big picture, to empathize, to ask what the situation looks like from other angles, etc.
Because the truth is, the average person has never been better off in our world; we’ve never been safer.
In the not too distant past, the majority of the species were peasants living in mud barely getting enough food to eat. King and Queens died from common illnesses. Tribal warfare was common. Rape was common. Slavery was common. A single disease could wipe out a third of the world’s population. Game of Thrones wasn’t a TV show—it was a reality (minus the dragons). Storms and natural disasters ravaged entire civilizations.
And today, we think the world is so bad because we have oligarchs and xenophobia, drug use and addiction, loneliness and existentialism, floods and famine; but those things have always been there. We just usually didn’t see it because the news didn’t travel further than our village. But now we wake up every day and have access to the lives of 8 billion people all around the planet. Naturally, it only makes sense that with such a large area of coverage and with so many people that something is going to go wrong. It would be insane and nearly statistically impossible for it not to. And so, with brains that evolved in tribes smaller than 150 people, we’re overwhelmed by the amount of tragedy and information that we are now exposed to. But we can remind ourselves of that scale we’re dealing with, that things are better than ever—it just doesn’t seem that way because now we can see everywhere instantaneously. So let’s do ourselves a favor and not add fuel to the fire with our own fear-mongering and doomsaying; let’s instead be champions of compassion and critical thought, living in the gray area, paying attention to the messages we put out into the world, having the courage to challenge our peers with new perspectives rather than taking the easy road of anger and arrogance. I promise, the world will look better when you stop declaring everything outside yourself an enemy.