Thursday, January 31, 2008

7 Reasons the 21st Century is Making Us Miserable

Studies show that for almost everybody, the number of people we really trust is shrinking. About a quarter of the people they talked to said they had NO ONE to confide in. Walk down the street, one out of four people you pass have nobody.

The Sad Bear 1, by Nedroid

Among the people who did have somebody, the average number of people in their circle of trust was two. And that includes spouses and parents. Yes, this is new. The numbers are down a whole bunch since just 1985. The world is becoming a colder and lonelier place. Here's why.

1. Not enough annoying strangers in our lives.

That's not sarcasm. Annoyance is something you build up a tolerance to, like alcohol or a bad smell. The more we're able to edit the annoyance out of our lives, the less we're able to handle it.

The problem is we've built an awesome, sprawling web of technology meant purely to let us avoid annoying people. Do all your Christmas shopping online and avoid the fat lady ramming her cart into you at Target. Spend five thousand bucks on a home theater system so you can see movies on a big screen without a toddler kicking the back of your seat. Hell, even rent the DVD's online so you don't even have to mess with the confused kid working the register at Blockbuster.

Get stuck in the waiting room at the doctor? No way I'm striking up a conversation with the smelly old man sitting next to me. Plug the iPod into my ears and have a text conversation with a friend, or play my DS. Filter that annoyance right out of my world.


And that would be awesome, if it were actually possible to keep all of the irritating shit out of your life. But it's not. It never will be. As long as you have needs, you'll have to deal with people you can't stand from time to time. But that skill, the one that lets us deal with strangers and tolerate their shrill voices and clunky senses of humor and body odor and squeaky shoes, is being burned right out of us. Our Annoyance Immune System is being weakened. So what encounters you do have with the outside world, the world you can't control, make you want to go on a screaming crotch-punching spree.

Oh, yeah. Right in the crotch, buddy.

2. Not enough annoying friends, either.

I was born in a town full of people I couldn't stand. When I found myself in that classroom in elementary school, I was packed in there with two dozen kids I did not choose. Random luck threw us together. I had to try to pick my friends from that group and the experience was usually terrible.

Today, though, if I'm a huge Slipknot fan I can go find a slipknot forum and meet a dozen people there. People just like me. Same sense of humor, same interests, same outlook. We can start a private chatroom and lock everybody else out. Say goodbye to the tedious, awkward, painful process of dealing with somebody who's truly different from me, someone coming from a completely different place in the world. That's another old-world inconvenience, like having to wash your clothes in a creek or wait for a raccoon to wander by the outhouse so you could wipe your ass with it.

Now, I was about to say that this is a bad thing because peacefully dealing with incompatible people is important to living in a society. But that's not true. No, peacefully dealing with people you can't stand is society. That's literally all it is. People with opposite tastes and conflicting personalities sharing space and cooperating, through gritted teeth sometimes.

Fifty years ago, you HAD to sit in a crowded room to see a movie. You didn't get to choose, you either did that or you missed the movie. When you got a new car, everyone on the block came and stood in your yard to look it over. And some of those people were assholes, I can assure you. And yet, on the whole, people back then were apparently happier in their jobs and more satisfied with their everyday lives than we are.

My parents, circa 1982

And get this: they had more friends.

That's right; even though they had almost NO ability to filter their friends purely by common interests (hell, often you were just friends with the guy who happened to live next door) they still came up with more close friends than we have now. People they could trust.

It turns out, I suppose, that after you get over that first irritation, after you shed your shell of "they listen to different music because they wouldn't understand mine" superiority, there's a sort of comfort in needing other people and being needed on a level that goes beyond common interests. It turns out humans are social animals after all. And that ability to suffer fools, to tolerate annoyance, that's literally the one single thing that makes you a human being, that allows you to function in a world populated by other people who aren't you. Otherwise, you turn into a goth. Science has proven it.

3. Text = Bad Communication

I have this friend who uses the expression "No, thank you," in a sarcastic way. It means, "I'd rather be shot in the face." He puts a little ironic lilt on the last two words that lets you know.

"Want to go see that new Rob Schneider movie?"
"No, thank you."

So I send this guy an e-mail asking,

hey, do you want me to bring over that leftover chili?

...And his reply is,

No, thank you

That pissed me off. I'm proud of my chili. It takes four days to make it. I grind up the dried peppers myself, the meat is expensive, hand-tortured veal. The beans are from my garden. He claimed he loved it when he was at my kitchen table yesterday, he certainly ate enough of it. But my offer to give him the leftovers is dismissed with his bitchy catchphrase?

I didn't speak to him for six months. He sent me a letter, I mailed it back, unread, with a dead rat packed inside.

It was my wife who finally ran into him and realized that the "no thank you" he replied with was not meant to be sarcastic, but was a literal, "no, but thank you for offering." He had no room in his freezer, it turns out.

So did we really need a study to tell us that more than 40% of what you say in an e-mail is misunderstood? Well, they did one anyway.

What's startling for me is realizing more than half of my "friends" are online-only. I've never talked to them on the phone or in person. So, if 40% of my personality has gotten lost in the text transition, do these people even know me? Do they know David, or do they know Text David, a guy who is 40% different than the real thing?

The people that dislike you via text, on message boards or chatrooms or whatever, is it because you're really incompatible or is it because of the misunderstood 40 percent?

And the people who like you via text... well I hate to break it to you, but...

The Sad Bear #2, by Nedroid

4. Text = Less Communication

Somebody is going to object to the last point, saying that e-mail and texting lets them do what live conversation doesn't, namely edit their messages for clarity before hitting "send." Besides, how many times have we spewed off some verbal insult in the heat of the moment, before we had time to consider? E-mail always gives you that time, right?

That's true, but what you lose in text vastly outweighs the gain. I can prove it.

When you tell me something to my face, what percentage of the meaning is actually in the words? You know, as opposed to your body language and tone of voice? Would you say half? More?

It's seven percent. The other 93% is nonverbal, according to studies. No, I don't know exactly how they arrived at that number. They have a machine or something. But we didn't need it, I mean, come on. Most of our humor is sarcasm, and sarcasm is just mismatching the words with the tone. "No, thank you." The joke is all in the non-verbal.

And you don't wait for a girl to verbally tell you she likes you. It's the sparkle in her eyes, her posture, the way she grabs your head and shoves your face into her boobs.

And that leads us to the next problem. That ability to absorb the moods of others through that kind of subconscious osmosis is crucial. Kids born without it are considered mentally handicapped. People who have lots of it are called "charismatic" and become movie stars and politicians. It's not what they say; it's this energy they put off that makes us feel good about ourselves.

But the awful thing that happens when we're texting is that all that is stripped away. And there's a weird side-effect to it, too; absent a sense of the other person's mood, every line we read gets filtered through our own mood instead. In that last part, the reason I read my friend's message as sarcastic was mainly because at the time I was in a terrible mood myself.

I was in a mood to be offended and I didn't have his loose, calm energy to feed off of, to cool me down. What's worse, if I do enough of my communicating this way, my mood never changes. After all, people keep saying nasty things to me! Of course I'm depressed! It's me against the world!

5. We're not criticized enough.

Half of what sucks about not having close friends has nothing to do with missing birthday parties or not having a second person to play basketball with. No, what sucks is the lack of real criticism.

In my time running a website, I've been called "fag" approximately 104,165 times. I keep an Excel spreadsheet. I've also been called "asshole" and "cockweasel" and "fuckcamel" and "cuntwaffle" and "shitglutton" and "porksword" and "wangbasket" and "shitwhistle" and "thundercunt" and "fartminge" and "shitflannel" and "knobgoblin" and "boring."

And none of it mattered, because none of those people knew me well enough to really hit the target. I've been insulted lots, but I've been criticized - and I mean the way a wife or a best friend can criticize you - very little. And I've been made worse because of it. The difference is of course that insults are just someone who hates me making a noise to indicate they hate me. It's them telling me how they feel. Criticism, on the other hand, is someone telling me something about myself that I myself didn't know.

And as much as we hate to admit it, most of what we know about ourselves we've learned from other people. I only know that I'm overweight because I've observed other people who were thinner. I only know that it's irritating when I celebrate things by making a "Cha-CHING!" sound because I see the looks on their face when I do it. And the really big mistakes in my life, I've only avoided them because other, honest people sat me down and told me.

Above: A flamboyant transvestite with about
five times as many friends than the average

Tragically, now, there are a whole lot of people who never have those conversations. The interventions, the brutal honesty, the, "you know, everybody's pissed off because of what you said to Trevor last night but nobody wants to say anything because they're afraid of you," sort of conversations. Those horrible, awkward, wrenchingly uncomfortable sessions that you can only have with someone who sees right to the center of you.

E-mail and texting are awesome tools for avoiding those kind of exchanges. With text, you can respond when you feel like it. You can measure your words. You can pick and choose which questions to answer. The person on the other end can't see your face, can't see you get nervous, can't detect when you're lying. You have almost total control and as a result that other person never sees past your armor, never sees you at your worst, never knows the embarrassing little things about yourself that you can't control. The unspoken but shared quirks and humiliations and vulnerabilities that real friendships are built on.

If that language is too flowery for you, let me put it this way. If I've built a pool of friends via my blog, and in that medium I've carefully built up myself as a misunderstood, mysterious Master of the Night, it's kind of hard to log on and talk about how I went to prom and got diarrhea out on the dance floor. And that's a lonely feeling.

6. The Outrage Machine

A whole lot of the people still reading this are saying, "Of course I'm depressed! People are starving! America has turned into Nazi Germany! My parents watch retarded television shows and talk about them for hours afterward! People are dying in meaningless wars all over the world!"

But how did we wind up with a more negative view of the world than our parents? Or grandparents? Back then people didn't live as long, babies died more often, diseases were more common. If your friend moved away the only way to communicate was with pen and paper and a stamp. We have Iraq, our parents had Vietnam (which killed fifty times more people) and their parents had WW2 (which killed one thousand times as many). Some of your grandparents grew up at a time when nobody had air conditioning. All of their parents grew up without it.

So why are we all in such shitty moods? Here's why:

If I post an article called, "Fall Out Boy is a Fine Band" and on the same day post one called, "Fall Out Boy is the Worst Band of the Last 100 Years, Say Experts," which do you think will get the most traffic? Let me tell you from experience it's the second one, by a 10-1 ratio. Outrage manufactures word-of-mouth.

The news blogs many of you read? The people running them know the same thing. Every site is in a dogfight for traffic (even if they don't run ads, they still measure their success by the size of their audience) and so they carefully pick through the wires for the most inflammatory story possible. The other blogs start echoing the same story from the same point of view. If you want, you can surf all day and never swim out of the warm, still waters of the "aren't those bastards evil" pool.

This is how you get whole online societies of people agreeing that on 9/11 the pentagon was hit with a cruise missile and not a plane (in full view of several hundred Pentagon janitors and secretaries landscapers and other employees who decided afterward not to say anything), and, by the way, that the World Trade Center was rigged with explosives, triggered to detonate after remote-control plane mockups slammed into them while the real planes were diverted, the passengers unloaded and I guess shot.

So it's not just that they're continuing to believe something that's batshit insane by sealing themselves off from dissent. It's that they're feeding themselves a view of the world that's actually nastier than it really is (the list of conspirators would have to be so huge that a third of the people you pass on the street would be in on it).

9/11 photos. Circled: Conspiracy

This wasn't as much a problem in the old days, of course, because as recently as my youth you only had three channels on TV. That's right. Three. I'm talking about the 80's here. So there was something unifying in the way we all sat down to watch the same news, all of it coming from the same point of view. Even if the point of view was retarded and wrong, even if some stories went criminally unreported, we at least all shared it.

That's over. There effectively is no "mass media" any more so, whereas before we disagreed because we saw the same news and interpreted it differently, now we disagree because we're seeing completely different freaking news.

You can see right away why this makes us hate each other more. It's one thing to disagree about how to respond to terrorism. It's another thing to think I'm giving silent consent to the government's mass murder of thousands of its own citizens in what has to be the most elaborately retarded scheme to do anything, ever. That difference is irreconcilable and so the tension can't be released. It just builds and builds and builds...

It just occurred to me that, according to this picture, this man
statistically has more friends than most of us do. Especially if you count
the person holding the camera.

7. We feel worthless because we actually are worth less.

There's one advantage to having mostly online friends, and it's one that nobody ever talks about:

They demand less from you.

Sure, you emotionally support them, comfort them after a breakup, maybe even talk them out of a suicide. But knowing someone in meatspace adds a whole, long list of annoying demands. Wasting your whole afternoon helping them fix their computer. Going to funerals with them. Toting them around in your car every day after theirs gets repossessed by the bank. Having them show up unannounced when you were just settling in to watch the Dirty Jobs marathon on the Discovery channel and then talk about how hungry they are until you finally give them half your sandwich.

You have so much more control in AOL Messanger, or in chat, or in World of Warcraft.

But here's the thing. You are hard-wired by evolution to need to do things for people. Everybody for the last five thousand years seemed to realize this and then we suddenly forgot it in the last few decades. We get suicidal teens and scramble to teach them self-esteem. Well, unfortunately, self-esteem and the ability to like yourself only come after you've done something that makes you likable. You can't bullshit yourself. If I think Todd over here is worthless for sitting in his room all day, drinking and playing video games, doesn't it follow that I'm worthless for doing the same thing?

It doesn't matter what you tell yourself, or what slogans you memorize about how everyone is special. You'll think of yourself as special when you do something special. If you think of yourself as special prior to actually doing something special, you're not healthy and well-balanced. You're a narcissist, disconnected from reality.

The Sad Bear #3, by Nedroid

You want to break out of that black tar pit of self-hatred? Brush the black hair out of your eyes, step away from the computer, and buy a nice gift for someone you loathe. Send a card to your worst enemy. Make dinner for Mom and Dad. Or just do something simple, with an tangible result. Go clean the leaves out of the gutter and listen to the sound of the free-flowing water the next time it rains.

It ain't rocket science; you are a social animal and thus you are born with little happiness hormones that are released into your bloodstream when you see someone else benefitting from your actions. You can line up for yourself a spread of your favorite liquor, your favorite video game, your favorite movie and your favorite sex act, and the sum total of them won't give you the same kind of lasting happiness you'd get from helping the cranky old lady down the street drag her garbage to the curb.

This is why office jobs make so many of us miserable; you don't get to see the fruit of your labor. But work construction out in the hot sun for two months, and for the rest of your life you can drive past a certain house and say, "holy shit, I built that."

That level of satisfaction, the "I built that" or "I grew that" or "I fed that guy" or "I made these pants" feeling, can't be matched by anything the internet has to offer.

Except, you know, this website.

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