#119: On touching grass
The other day a friend texted me an article saying it reminded them of something I might write. “Everyone Is Beautiful and No One Is Horny,” it was called. I obviously loved the headline and started reading it right away. The gist was that beauty feels more divorced from pleasure and sexuality than ever—similar themes to my essay about the death of sex. Initially I agreed with a lot of the article, or was at least doing that thing where I wanted to agree with it, so tried to forgive the parts that felt like a stretch. And then about midway through, my good faith attempt gave way to laughter. This was the part that did me in:
“A generation or two ago, it was normal for adults to engage in sports not purely as self-improvement but as an act of leisure. People danced for fun; couples socialized over tennis; kids played stickball for lack of anything else to do. Solitary exercise at the gym also had a social, rather than moral, purpose. People worked out to look hot so they could attract other hot people and fuck them. Whatever the ethos behind it, the ultimate goal was pleasure.”
I appreciate the broader point she was trying to make, but the idea that no one dances for fun anymore, or plays sports for leisure, or works out to look hot, is so patently absurd I have to wonder what she does on the weekends. At the same time, I empathize with someone who would write something like that, because that is how the world can look when you’ve been on the internet for too long, digital feeds burned into your retinas, your peripheral vision faded to black. That kind of perspective—dark, inhuman, no one dancing for fun anymore—is the blogger’s occupational hazard, and I fall for it all the time. I call it the Twitter bias.
The Twitter bias is the very-online person’s tendency to view the behavior they see on social media as fully representative of reality, with little consideration for what they experience in their physical surroundings. Unfortunately, anyone who spends a lot of time scrolling is susceptible to this delusion, whether they personally post anything or not. Unlike being “terminally online”—i.e. offering shoots-and-ladders shaped takes such as “advocating for walkable cities is ableist”—suffering from Twitter bias is more immediately a consumer’s dilemma. It’s what happens when a person takes online discourse (tweets, headlines, viral TikToks) as their primary input when forming their worldview. Whether they contribute to the discourse is less relevant. It’s about the feeling. It’s about tunnel vision.
Techno-pessimism aside, I actually want to focus on a more optimistic thought: the blissful possibilities of overcoming the bias. I’m sure you’ve experienced the feeling on occasion—annoyed by some stranger’s inane and inconsequential take, only to realize it’s actually not your job to correct them, or even worry about them. That in fact you can just go on your way without a word and forget they exist. Throughout history people have had terrible ideas, bad social skills, and unappealing ways of life. Only today are we “forced” to witness them all the time. Sometimes I get fixated on how the particularities of social media are rotting our brains, but I feel much better when I remember that it must also be true that some people have always had rotten brains, and that in the past they were usually left to rot in their immediate vicinities.
I’m not saying we should disregard what happens online. Obviously it’s partially integrated with reality. We use it to organize, socialize, bully, get bullied, make money, represent ourselves. Culture moves as a result. A 2021 Pew study reported that 31% of Americans are “almost constantly” online. (For teens, that number is 46%). All this gives serious weight to what happens there. But it’s still not the full scope of reality. The debates, trends, and conflicts happening online are not necessarily the same ones happening offline, or to the same degree. It’s easy to forget this. When I see a stupid take get retweeted 10,000 times, my brain perceives that as a popular idea. But 10,000 people supporting an idea (insofar as retweeting counts as meaningful support, which is to say barely) doesn’t actually make it popular. Not to get too pedantic, but 10,000 people is .0001% of the population. And the people who post aren’t an accurate sample of humanity, either; they are a specific type. When a quick scroll through my feeds leads me to think “everyone” is talking about something, I need to put that group in proper context. I need to, metaphorically speaking, touch grass.
I forget this all the time. The truth of it seems almost incompatible with the natural processing of my brain, which tells me that what I see (online) is a reasonable reflection of what is happening (offline). To some extent, this is why the internet is useful—it exposes us to things we might otherwise not know about, and should. But so much other garbage gets tangled up in that process. The culture wars specifically. Consider the public figures who can’t stop talking about cancel culture, or panicking about the existence of trans people: the former mostly enjoy cushy, uncancel-able lives, and the latter are so fixated on outrageous hypotheticals you have to wonder if they’ve ever actually met a trans person. And yet I sense real panic in their language. Their feeds are making them distraught. And there’s not a chance the physical world around them lives up to the crisis they’ve created in their heads.
Those types are an extreme example, but I think we’re all susceptible to being swayed by Twitter bias into making hyperbolic statements about society because of what “everyone” is saying or doing these days. Sometimes when I do that, I’m right. But just as often I find that I’m wound up about something I only witness online, and when pushed, can’t corroborate it with my offline experiences. I’ve never seen someone cancel plans because Mercury was in retrograde. I’ve never been disregarded to my face because I’m a millennial. No one I know is actually getting a nose job. My friends have never fought over who is more oppressed. Dimes Square is just another dirty couple blocks downtown. My experience isn’t everything, but it’s useful as a counterbalance to the kind of hysteria only the internet can create. People still dance for fun all the time.
Speaking of millennials, there’s a metaphor to be made here between Twitter bias and generational bias. Older people tend to sum up younger generations by amalgamating a handful of the most visible people, anecdotes, or trends associated with a particular age. They often miss the nuance, the complicating factors, the genuine and sprawling diversity of views and temperaments among people who happen to be born around the same time. (Younger people do this to older people, too.) Given that the internet rewards and elevates the most provocative people, anecdotes, and trends, we as consumers are always at risk of falling into the same trap. The professional media only make this worse, with all the terminally online journalists writing as if Twitter discourse necessarily represents the global conversation. Contributing to that is a new fear of mine.
The internet has made it so easy for us to perceive and understand the world beyond our immediate scope that it feels like a moral imperative to keep up. But the vice grip it now has on our attention presents a challenge: to remember that what we experience first-hand also matters. Our worldviews need to be shaped by both. This is a comforting reminder, in my experience, and also a humbling one. The internet can paint a particularly flat picture about how human beings relate to each other, pursue pleasure, or generally operate. The offline world infinitely complicates that narrative, in ways disturbing, rapturous, and sweet.
My favorite thing I read last week was “Failure to Cope ‘Under Capitalism,’” by Clare Coffey for Gawker (featuring a forgivable bit of Twitter bias and a surprisingly inspirational kicker). Last Friday’s 15 things also included an article that made me laugh out loud multiple times, a mattress experience, the sweetest supercut of all time, and more. The rec of the week was addicting iPhone games. Earnestly sooo excited to download some of these.
Hope you have a nice Sunday!