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It’s hard to care about other people’s feelings online

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From the coronavirus to mass shootings, things don’t feel real on the internet

Northern Italy In The Grip Of Covid-19 Coronavirus Photo by Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

The internet is so big. Yesterday I saw a javelina running in Tuscon, AZ, set to “Running Up That Hill”; today, I saw merch for SARS-CoV-2, the name for the virus that causes COVID-19 — what we’ve all been referring to, humorously or not, as “the coronavirus.” It’s really only possible to keep up with what’s going on online in your particular corner of the web, though I do think it’s fractal and that local dynamics are the same as the system-wide ones.

Over the last five or six years, I’ve seen a shift in the weather patterns of my particular corner of online. I don’t identify as an accelerationist, but it does feel like things are speeding up, maybe because the web’s distribution mechanisms have become centralized and gotten slicker. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr all feel like different information delivery systems than they did even a few years ago, and email forwards are dead, at least for my generation. Whatever the case is, I’m getting more news alerts than I ever have before. Everything trends for a minute now.

Which has meant that I’ve become more adept at figuring out what’s useful and what’s garbage — what’s worth thinking about and what’s worth ignoring entirely. It has also meant I spend a lot more of my time emotionally processing what’s happening in the news, which feels somewhat new. For example: last night I had a drink with a friend, and midway through our conversation about the new virus, got a news alert about a mass shooting. What was weird wasn’t the shooting — those happen fairly regularly in America — but how normal it felt to be interrupted by a new tragedy while we were in the middle of talking about another one.

It was this same friend’s therapist who said to her, a few years ago, that human brains weren’t meant to process this much trauma at this kind of scale. I’ve thought about that sentiment for a while now, and I think what the therapist meant was: if you do this enough you’ll become inured to feeling things.

If you spend enough time online, wherever that happens to be, you’ll probably see it start happening to you. It’s easier to meme something than it is to feel any kind of way about something serious happening to other people. What I mean to say is that it sometimes feels like the internet has made tragedies harder to interpret by making them feel more emotionally distant; nothing seems real unless it happens to you or to someone you know. The medium obscures the reality of other people’s experiences, even as it makes them more visible.

It’s telling, I think, that this new viral outbreak is stoking very real, very American racial tensions while it also generates new merchandise and meme opportunities.

Another recent example: Ben Domenech, the co-founder and publisher of the right-wing magazine The Federalist, took offense to something New York Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones said online about whiteness as it intersects with Cuban and Puerto Rican heritage. As Domenech was getting clowned on in Jones’ mentions, he seemingly disclosed that his family had a) owned slaves, and b) that he had inherited that wealth.

It’s one thing to display performative anger online; it’s quite another to gloat about your family owning slaves. If this had happened in person, I don’t know that Domenech would have been so flip about treating other human beings as property. The internet surely has nothing to do with Domenech’s apparent emotional deficiencies, but when you’re outside of your online bubble (or DMs!) it’s easy to forget that not everyone shares your biases, whatever they may be. It is even easier to forget that other people matter.