Internet makes us feel everything and accomplish nothing
For every minute I spent thinking about climate change last year, I probably spent twenty more minutes browsing Zara’s huge summer sale. And though I’m genuinely terrified of the impending climate crisis and de facto of our government refusal to prevent it, I’m selfishly even more terrified of my own hypocrisy â how I can reflexively roll my eyes when someone refuses to go vegetarian, but excuse my own passive refusal to recycle in my dorm room. How I can tweet about the dangers of performative activism in one tab and then order laundry detergent from Amazon Prime in another. How I can accept self-delusion when it’s convenient and look down on others for doing the same.
This cognitive dissonance â my inability to transfer the empathy I feel in online spaces into offline action â is just one piece of a much larger consumerist puzzle. Not only does social media constantly remind us of all the ways we could do better (should we boycott H&M? unsubscribe Trisha Paytas? Burning our Harry Potter merch?), but even our attempts to discuss these issues online still in some ways support the very things we’re trying to criticize. Our likes, opinions, user data, and yes, even our hateful comments generate revenue and social capital for the creators we see, the platforms that host them, and the advertisers that fund them both. Not only does our involvement in the damage wrought by advanced capitalism seem inescapable, but even the methods we have to criticize this consumerism still perpetuate it in some ways.
Social media exposes us to so many problems and tragedies that I often feel too overwhelmed to even begin to address them. At the same time, I’ve also clicked on enough mid-roll ads in Youtubers’ blackface apology videos to wonder if it’s even possible to avoid moral implication. We often talk about what it means vote with our dollar â how the products we buy have moral price tags as well as finance. On the internet, however, we vote with our clicks and our opinions. This means that simply witnessing a trend â or critiquing it â inevitably fuels related ideas, creators and businesses.
Take, for example, the rise of online savings. Although second-hand shopping has always been around, it’s fair to say that the internet has made it cool again. A cheap alternative to “fast fashion“, saving offers the best of both worlds: not only does it reduce your carbon footprint, but it allows you to snag those fashionable “vintage” pieces that you can’t always find in retail stores. And while savings shopping on TikTok and YouTube have certainly helped popularize the practice, those same social media sites have also resulted in a wave of backlash.
Last summer, many netizens expressed concern about the possibility of gentrification of thrift stores â that the sudden popularity of thrift and resale is making it harder for low-income shoppers to find wardrobe staples at their now-select local savers. There was then, of course, an inevitable backlash to that backlash: it turns out that stores like GoodWill and the Salvation Army get so many donations that they end up dumping most of it in dumps or foreign markets anyway.
And while that emotional boost was honestly pretty exhausting, I finally walked away from that debate with some genuinely actionable advice â that saving is good. However, it was still a little haunting to see Forever21 ads popping up between these sustainability-focused videos – a constant reminder that even the tools we use to debate consumer ethics aren’t exempt from the tactics used to market this consumption. . Unable to escape this implication at every turn, even succeeding in changing our consumption habits can still feel strangely like failure. After all, I am partner in crime whether I buy a textbook from Amazon or whether Amazon uses my data.
While the economics debate was resolved relatively quickly, this pattern of online commentary extends far beyond climate change and sustainability. It’s a parallel cycle of talk that Jenna Drenten, associate professor of marketing at Loyola University Chicago, has aptly called “Tabloid TikTok.â Do Axel from TikTok actually deserves its fame? Should we comment John Mulaney’s Divorce? Should calories count be preceded by trigger warnings? Is it appropriate to contact West Elm Caleb’s chief? In the tabloid TikTok, everyday users fuel the debate on the different modes and influencers of social networks.
As these questions might suggest, the most popular positions in these debates often boil down to “this tendency is problematic so it shouldn’t be fashionable” or “this famous person is problematic so they shouldn’t be famous”. What we actually have is a meta-debate about the ethics of media consumption itself â in our world, a form of anti-capitalist commentary that is considerably less actionable than âstop buying on Amazonâ .
Even when we challenge the trends and influencers that appear on our For You page, by simply knowing them, we’ve already offered our input in the form of views and attention. It’s not just that the internet makes me feel like I can never fully act on my values ââ- just being on the internet is itself proof that I literally can’t, no matter how hard I try. . Our involvement seems inevitable, but doing nothing always seems wrong.
While that sounds pretty dark and admittedly defeatist, I’m in no way suggesting that we should stop trying altogether. Our small changes actually matter, especially when many of us commit to them. However, the Internet is both validating and frustrating, exhausting and invigorating, addictive and repulsive. And it’s the most corrosive elements of the internet â namely, the way it forces us to inevitably commodify ourselves and each other â that cannibalizes what might otherwise be a force for good.
The Internet has not so much seasoned me to the tragedies of the world as it has made me aware of my perpetual involvement in them. Despite what experts so often conclude, social media burnout isn’t as simple as just becoming desensitized to the world around you â it’s feeling the brunt of everything all at once. There is power, however, in realizing that we do not carry this burden alone.