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Onze auteur Matt Haig heeft het in zijn nieuwe, in juli verschijnen boek Notes on a Nervous Planet over hoe de wereld ons lijkt te vragen om steeds meer online te zijn, steeds meer in contact te staan met de buitenwereld. Hier lees je, naast een sneak peek uit Haigs nieuwe boek, ook een artikel dat hij schreef voor The Guardian over hoe hij erachter kwam dat sociale media misschien wel net zo slecht voor je zijn als de tabaksindrustrie.
I used to think social media was a force for good. Now the evidence says I was wrong
Fragment uit een opiniestuk van Matt Haig in The Guardian. Lees het hele artikel hier.
I used to think social media was essentially a force for good, whether it was to initiate the Arab spring of 2011, or simply as a useful tool for bringing together like-minded people to share videos of ninja cats. Having spent a lot of time thinking about mental health, I even saw social media’s much-maligned potential for anonymity as a good thing, helping people to open up about problems when they might not feel able to do so in that physical space we still quaintly call real life.
I also knew from my own experience that it could sometimes provide a happy distraction from the evil twins of anxiety and depression. I have made friends online. As an author, it’s also been a great way to test new ideas, and has taken storytelling from its castle in the sky back down to the metaphorical (now hashtag-heavy) campfire. As someone who often finds social situations mentally exhausting, social media seemed far more solution than problem.
Yes, I would occasionally feel that maybe staring at my Twitter feed near-continuously for seven hours wasn’t that healthy, especially when I was arguing with an army of Trump fans telling me to jump off a cliff. Yes, I’d see articles warning of the dangers of excessive internet use, but I dismissed these as traditional, reactionary takes. I saw social media naysayers as the first reviewers of Technicolor movies, who felt the colour distracted from the story, or were like the people who walked out on Bob Dylan at Newport folk festival for playing an electric guitar, or like those who warned that radio or TV or video games or miniskirts, or hip-hop or selfies or fidget spinners or whatever, would lead to the end of civilisation.
I remember a Daily Mail headline, “How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer”, which made things even clearer: to be anti-social media was to be hysterically on the wrong side of history.
Then I started the research for a book I am writing on how the external world affects our mental health. I wanted to acknowledge the downsides of social media, but to argue that far from being a force for ill,it offers a safe place where the insanities of life elsewhere can be processed and articulated.
But the deeper into the research I went, the harder it was to sustain this argument. Besides the Daily Mail screeching about the dangers, other people – scientists, psychologists, tech insiders and internet users themselves – were highlighting ways in which social media use was damaging health.
Sneak peek uit Notes on a Nervous Planet
Things I love about the internet
Collective action against social injustice.
Watching old pop videos I had forgotten about.
Watching movie trailers without having to be in a cinema.
Wikipedia, Spotify, BBC Good Food recipes.
The process of researching a trip away.
Finding people who understand what you feel like when you are feeling low.
Talking to readers I would otherwise never talk to.
Friendliness, which does happen quite a lot.
Watching videos of animals doing incredible things (a gorilla dancing in a pool, an octopus opening a jar).
Being able to go up to people via email or a message in a way I wouldn’t be able to in real life.
Staying in touch with old friends.
The ability to test out ideas with people.
Really good yoga instructors from Austin, Texas, whose practices I can follow without living in Austin, Texas.
Equally good cool-down stretch running videos.
Researching the downsides of the internet, via the internet.
Things I should do less of on the internet
Write Facebook updates about a meaningful experience, when I could be having an actual meaningful experience.
Write tweets containing opinions that will win nobody over.
Click on articles I don’t really want to read.
Browse my Twitter feed when I should be eating breakfast.
Read my Amazon reviews.
Compare my life to the lives of other people.
Stare at emails without answering them.
Answer emails while I should be listening to my mum talk about her trip to see a doctor.
Feel the empty joy of likes and favourites.
Search my own name.
Click off videos for songs I like on YouTube without waiting until the end, because I have seen another video I like.
Google symptoms and self-diagnose (just because you are a hypochondriac it doesn’t mean you aren’t actually dying).
Google things – any things (‘number of atoms in a human body’, ‘turmeric health benefits’, ‘cast of West Side Story’, ‘how to download photos from iCloud’) – after midnight.
Check how a tweet/photo/status update is going down (and keep checking).
Want to go offline, without going offline.
It was the same again. ‘Matt, get off the internet.’
Andrea was right, and she was only looking after me, but I didn’t want to hear it.
‘It’s not fine. You’re having an argument with someone. You’re writing a book about how to cope with the stress of the internet and you’re getting stressed on the internet.’
‘That’s not really what it’s about. I’m trying to understand how our minds are impacted by modernity. I’m writing about the world as a nervous planet. How our psychology is connected. I’m writing about all aspects of a—’
She held up her palm. ‘Okay. I don’t want the TED talk.’
I sighed. ‘I’m just getting back to an email.’
‘No. No, you aren’t.’
‘Okay. I’m on Twitter. But there’s one point I’ve just got to get across—’
‘Matt, it’s up to you. But I thought the whole idea was that you were doing all this to try to work out how not to get like this.’
‘So wrapped up in stuff you shouldn’t be wrapped up in. I just don’t want you ill. This is how you get ill. That’s all.’
She left the room. I stared at the tweet I was about to post. It wasn’t going to add anything to my life. Or anyone else’s life. It was just going to lead to more checking of my phone, like Pepys with his pocket watch. I pressed delete, and felt a strange relief as I watched each letter disappear.
Neurobiologists have identified ‘mirroring’ as one of the neural routes activated in the brains of primates – including us – during interaction with others.
In a connected age, the mirrors get bigger.
When people feel scared after a horrific event that fear spreads like a digital wildfire.
When people feel angry that anger breeds.
Even when people with contradictory opinions to us exhibit an emotion we can feel a similar one. For instance, if someone is furious at you online for something, you are unlikely to adopt their opinion but it is quite likely you will catch their fury. You see it every day on social media: people arguing with each other, entrenching each other’s opposing view, yet also mirroring each other’s emotional state.
I have done this many times, which is why Andrea was frustrated with me. I have become embroiled in some argument with someone who has called me a ‘snowflake’ or ‘libtard’ or who has tweet-shouted ‘LIBERALISM IS A MENTAL DISORDER’ at me. I kind of know that arguing with people online is not the most fulfilling way to spend our limited days on this earth and yet I have done it, without much control. I recognise this now. And I need to stop it.
Anyway, my point is that while I am politically very different to the people I argue with, psychologically we are fuelling each other with the same feelings of anger. Political opposition but emotional mirroring.
I once tweeted something silly in a state of anxiety.
‘Anxiety is my superpower,’ I said.
I didn’t mean anxiety was a good thing. I meant that anxiety was ridiculously intense, that we people who have an excess of it walk through life like an anxious Clark Kent or a tormented Bruce Wayne knowing the secret of who we are. And that it can be a burden of racing uncontrollable thoughts and despair but one, just occasionally, that we can convince ourselves has a silver lining.
For instance, personally I am thankful that it forced me to stop smoking, to get physically healthy, that it made me work out what was good for me, and who cared for me and who didn’t. I am thankful that it led me to trying to help some other people who experience it, and I am thankful that it led me – during good patches – to feel life more intensely.
It was essentially what I had written in Reasons to Stay Alive. But I hadn’t expressed it very well in this tweet. And then, suddenly, I was getting a lot of attention on Twitter.
I decided to delete my tweet, but people had screengrabbed it and were rallying the ranks of the Twitter angry to direct their ire in my direction. ‘SUPERPOWER???? WTF!!!’ ‘@MATTHAIG1 IS TOXIC’ ‘Delete your account’ ‘What a fucking idiot’ and so on. And you stay on, scared, watching this car crash of your own making, as your timeline fills with tens then hundreds of angry people, convinced that as they were touching a raw nerve they had a point. By the way, ‘touched a raw nerve’ is an irrelevant phrase if you have anxiety. Every nerve feels raw.
The anger became contagious and I could feel it almost like a physical force radiating from the screen. My heart started to beat twice as fast. Everything felt like it was closing in. The air got thinner. I was backed into a corner. I began to feel a bit like reality was melting away. ‘Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.’ I lost myself in a brief panic attack. I felt an unhealthy fusion of guilt and fear and defensive anger, and became determined never to live-tweet my way out of anxiety again.
Some things are best kept to yourself.
But also – more importantly – I wanted to find a way to stop other people’s view of me become my view of me. I wanted to create some emotional immunity. Social media, when you get too wrapped up in it, can make you feel like you are inside a stock exchange where you – or your online personality – is the stock. And when people start piling on, you feel your personal share price plummet. I wanted free of that. I wanted to psychologically disconnect myself. To be a self-sustaining market, psychologically speaking. To be comfortable with my own mistakes, knowing that every human is more than them. To allow myself to realise I know my inner workings better than a stranger does. To be able for other people to think I was a wanker, without me feeling I was one. To care about other people, but not about their misreadings of me within the opinion matrix of the internet.
How to stay sane on the internet
1. Practise abstinence. Social media abstinence, especially. Resist whatever unhealthy excesses you feel drawn towards. Strengthen those muscles of restraint.
2. Don’t type symptoms into Google unless you want to spend seven hours convinced you will be dead before dinner.
3. Remember no one really cares what you look like. They care what they look like. You are the only person in the world to have worried about your face.
4. Understand that what seems real might not be. When the novelist William Gibson first imagined the idea of what he coined ‘cyberspace’ in 1982’s ‘Burning Chrome’ he pictured it as a ‘consensual hallucination’. I find this description useful when I am getting too caught up in technology. When it is affecting my non-digital life. The whole internet is one step removed from the physical world. The most powerful aspects of the internet are mirrors of the external world, but it isn’t the external world. It is the real internet, but that’s all it can be. You can make real friends on there. As soon as you step away from it – for a minute, an hour, a day, a week – it is surprising how quickly it evaporates in your mind.
5. Understand people are more than a social media post. Think how many conflicting thoughts you have in a day. Think of the different contradictory positions you have held in your life. Respond to online opinions but never let one rushed opinion define a whole human being. ‘Every one of us,’ said the physicist Carl Sagan, ‘is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.’
6. Don’t hate-follow people. This has been my promise to myself since New Year’s Day, 2018, and so far it is working. Hate-following doesn’t give your righteous anger a focus. It fuels it. Do not seek out stuff that makes you unhappy. Do not measure your own worth against other people. Do not seek to define yourself against. Define what you are for. And browse accordingly.
7. Don’t play the ratings game. The internet loves ratings, whether it is reviews on Amazon and TripAdvisor and Rotten Tomatoes, or the ratings of photos and updates and tweets. Likes, favourites, retweets. Ignore it. Ratings are no sign of worth. Never judge yourself on them. To be liked by everyone you would have to be the blandest person ever. William Shakespeare is arguably the greatest writer of all time. He has a mediocre 3.7 average on Goodreads.
8. Don’t spend your life worrying about what you are missing out on.
9. Never delay a meal, or sleep, for the sake of the internet.
10. Stay human. Resist the algorithms. Don’t be steered towards being a caricature of yourself. Switch off the pop-up ads. Step out of your echo chamber. Don’t let anonymity turn you into someone you would be ashamed to be offline. Be a mystery, not a demographic. Be someone a computer could never quite know. Keep empathy alive. Break patterns. Resist robotic tendencies. Stay human.
Notes on a Nervous Planet verschijnt op 5 juli in Nederlandse vertaling bij Lebowski.