How the Internet Broke Our Brains
Twitter broke my brain. I’m not alone. New research from Pew found that 77 percent of Americans go online daily, but 26 percent claimed to be online “almost constantly.” Reading this brought me back to one day a few months ago, when I went outside for a cigarette, bringing my phone and cocktail with me. After a couple minutes of scrolling, whatever timer in my brain that governs my subconscious behaviour went off, and I got up to go back inside, still holding an unlit cigarette in my hand. My addiction to Twitter had overridden my addiction to nicotine. That’s probably not good! I thought. Naturally, I tweeted about it.
Much like psychologists are supposed to avoid armchair diagnoses, it’s unethical to project Internet Broken Brain onto someone you don’t know personally, but ... it is similar to the scumbag’s sixth sense. A real scumbag can parachute into any town or any situation and easily sniff out the guy holding drugs. I spent last week wandering around the internet in search of, well, people like me. They weren’t hard to find. They’re right in our face every minute of the day.
Last Wednesday, we learned that Donald Trump, Jr. and his wife, Vanessa Trump, were heading for divorce. At least one reason, Page Six reported, was Junior’s increasingly problematic tweets. My first instinct to talk through this phenomenon was to call Ashley Feinberg.
Feinberg, a HuffPost reporter, is a first ballot inductee for Extremely Online Hall of Fame. She’s a dogged reporter, she’s hilarious, and she’s leveraged her Twitter addiction for good a number of times, including ferreting out James Comey’s secret Twitter account last year.
“[Trump Jr.] is so aggressive in his stupidity and his inability to grasp anything outside himself,” Feinberg said. “No matter what happens, he is so confident that he’s right and that he’s an intelligent person. And he’s acquired all these hordes of fans, so he starts performing for them even harder when they cheer him on.” In other words, Don Jr. is also the epitome of being Extremely Online. Feinberg has broken a number of stories online, but does she feel that online has broken her brain in the process?
“Absolutely,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s Twitter, so much as the constant news cycle, but what’s the difference?”
Sometimes, Feinberg tells me, she’ll step off the subway and start writing a tweet before realising a minute later that she’s standing there in the way of other passengers, only to soon forget what it was she even tweeted. She says she doesn’t remember her dreams anymore
I'M INCAPABLE OF RETAINING NEW INFORMATION IN ANY NORMAL WAY." —ASHLEY FEINBERG
Krang T. Nelson, an exceptionally prolific tweeter, says he has to keep a firewall between his online life and his real life, if only because most of his friends don’t suffer from the same internet brain worms that he does. And no, that's not his real name, he asked me not to reveal it so that he could maintain some semblance of normalcy offline.
“I think the best way to describe it is … it’s like trying to explain something in a different language to someone, when they don't even know the country the language comes from exists.”
Krang and I had no such trouble speaking in the Poster’s Patois. Our conversation was peppered with offhand references to things that were immediately significant to both of us: Kurt Eichenwald’s hentai episode, Al Giordano, “my wife’s boyfriend,” Brandon Wardell’s sage advice about muting trolls.
“It probably skews the way I see the world,” Krang said. “Sometimes I’m jealous of my girlfriend or my friends. I have to go through my day knowing about this shit. I have to know about Kurt Eichenwald. It feels very self-punishing, self-flagellating in a certain way.”
The worst part is, we do this to ourselves. Try as we might, many of us simply can’t look away. Another recent poll found that 46 percent of people wished Twitter would go away. “Kill it and hope it dies,” as they put it. Thirty-two percent said the same of Facebook. That seems rather low, although it's likely to rise in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations about exploited user data.
Recently, at a show, the barman told me he couldn’t sell me two beers at once, even though the second was for my friend. You’re a fucking cop, I said, the worst insult imaginable to someone in my online social circle. You’re a narc. I wasn’t so much interacting with a human being, but popping off in his mentions. Soon after, I apologised to the barman, utterly ashamed. If the interaction had been on Twitter with an audience, dozens of people might’ve applauded me for my irascibility. We think nothing of calling someone a piece of shit online 10 times a day. In real life, it doesn’t feel quite as heroic. It feels ugly.
Andy Levy, the writer and television personality, told me he’s made steps to reduce his online levels in recent years. “I think it was breaking my brain and I had to step back,” Levy said. “I thought, Why am I doing this? It’s an unoriginal thought, but it’s like a drug, where you get the dopamine hit with likes, and you crave it more and more. But then, even with something fun, if you do it too much, it’s the law of diminishing returns.”
IN REAL LIFE, IT DOESN’T FEEL QUITE AS HEROIC. IT FEELS UGLY.
Levy lamented that online has become a large-scale exercise in piling on and ideological trench-digging that is bleeding over into the way we act in real life. If you spend all day online being an asshole, is it any wonder that you might start acting like one everywhere else? (You're a fucking cop.)
The past month has brought us several “unplugging” stunts. Vice’s Eve Peyser retreated from the web for a week in the woods. You probably read New York Timestech columnist Farhad Manjoo’s piece about going “offline” for two months. Two days after Manjoo’s piece was published, the Columbia Journalism Review raised questions about his process, showing that Manjoo was actually almost constantly on Twitter during his self-professed period of digital news abstinence. Manjoo, as much as he wanted, could not log off, which seems like a lost opportunity for a much more interesting and honest piece he could have written. He tried to quit, but he just couldn’t. I reached out to Manjoo to talk about it, but, as of this writing, he hasn’t responded.
Sometimes I look at my phone and it disgusts me. It’s like cleaning up empties the next morning after a night of partying, or the revulsion you might feel about pornography still playing on your computer seconds after finishing the deed. Who was I being? A decade ago, I had to go out drinking to wake up the next day with anxiety about what I might have said the night before. Now I can just scroll back through my timeline for receipts of exactly what kind of shithead I was when the maggots crept in.
"EVEN WITH SOMETHING FUN, IF YOU DO IT TOO MUCH, IT’S THE LAW OF DIMINISHING RETURNS.” —ANDY LEVY
“Twitter works like a giant, depressed brain,” web designer Mike Monteiro wrote recently. “It can’t tell right from wrong, and it can’t tell big from small.” Every issue, be it celebrity gossip or a normal person no one has ever heard of saying the wrong thing, is presented as the same size. They descend down our screen like spaceships in the old Space Invaders video game and our only weapon is a laser cannon. Boom! Fuck you! Boom! You suck! Boom! Nice take, moron. Explode those motherfuckers.
A friend called me with an intervention of sorts last week. I was being an asshole online, he told me, hurting people’s feelings. I had lost the ability to distinguish between issues that truly deserve criticism on Twitter and things I should probably keep to myself. I was subtweeting the website that pays my bills, because I didn’t like the content they were posting. Even still, when I put it that way, it does sound kind of funny, but that’s the self-righteousness of Extremely Online Individuals steering the ship. What’s more important to me, being right online, or making a living?
Sometimes the laser cannon points both ways. The phone in your pocket isn’t so much a means of connection to the world, but a self-destruction device. Type in the right code and you can ruin your life. But if you’re lucky, and you have good friends, they might tell you what’s what back in the real world. Until then, we’re all blocking the train to type out a tweet, or walking back inside with an unlit cigarette. Our brains are broken because we’re the ones who broke them. So, what happens next?
This story originally appeared on Esquire.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.