How come everyone online has a fully formed opinion on everything ever?


How come everyone online has a fully formed opinion on everything ever?

This writer was urged to give you his opinion on it

By Mahesh Rao  November 20th, 2015

This is not a ‘think piece’. It is not a ‘take’. It is not a ‘personal essay’. It isn’t even a slightly glossier version of an op-ed, buffed and stroked and styled and presented to you in a fancier way than would have been possible in your local newspaper or favourite online talking shop. And yet, even as I type this, I’m beginning to feel queasy and the desk looks as though it’s beginning to tilt. I’ve not been entirely honest — it looks like this is in fact a think piece after all, but it’s a dishonest one, a fraud, an impostor, a piece of writing that claims to be above the fray but it is in fact right in the thick of it.

For many of us, the division between our online and offline existences has an easy porosity, and what insinuates itself into our lives, between the frantic work deadlines, the kitchen disasters and the nights out, is the white noise of opinion. It is the fuel of the internet. There are so many claims on this sort of stuff — social media, news websites, online magazines, blogs — that the hunger is insatiable and the churn disorientingly rapid. Careers are made and destroyed, lives changed, people hounded, abuse and vitriol flung about.

This is sometimes the way it works: you see people taking pictures of their food in restaurants, the modern way of saying grace; you see the images on their Instagram feeds with a cloudburst of hashtags; you think: ‘oh well, the edges of that sea bream do look rather crispy, just the way I like it’; then on your Twitter feed you see a link to a think piece that thunders that all the food Instagramming must stop because it’s turning us into bone-headed narcissists with perennial status anxiety who can’t last five minutes without wishing to showcase some duplicitously fabulous aspect of our lives; and you think, yes well, it is all quite annoying, these steady parades of cupcakes and sushi platters and cheese boards; and the whirl of opinion continues, who are these people, they must be stopped, restaurants must ban them, ‘foodstagrammers’ ugh; there are open letters, listicles, comment threads; the words ‘pretentious’, ‘pseudo-artistic’ and ‘dumbass’ are applied with vigour; psychologists weigh in saying that this is actually a problem, a syndrome, a condition, they need assistance, sympathy and drugs, not internet derision; then the backlash to the backlash begins; and somewhere along the way, you get a mild headache, and say that, well, you don’t think you care all that much but, while staring at one of the images, you decide that you really could murder one of those cupcakes.

And so it continues: the steady whoosh of offense, censure and retort, all the while feeling that we are being manipulated into commenting, retweeting, sharing, and in one case I can remember, throwing a shammi kebab out of the window. The glib solution is, of course, simply not to look at any of it, bake a cake, ride a bike, have a wank, whatever you do, just don’t click on the link. But you know and I know that we will. It may be during the bored moment in the dentist’s waiting room, the long echo of the insomniac’s 3am hush or the anxious 20 minutes before your date shows up.

There’s the loss of nuance and the flattening of language to consider too. These opinions are often sputtered out in short bursts as we wait for the train or during an ad break and what can result is a sort of battering and levelling out of issues until an egregious use of the male pronoun is being discussed in the same terms as a police shooting in America.

I sometimes fret that I’m not doing enough of the thinking myself, that I might have permanently relinquished the silence and the distance required for reflection; that I am instead sucking up a whole stream of angry feeds that I will then regurgitate at some painful social gathering. (During an awkward silence at a dinner I once pretended to have an opinion on Bitcoin, even though I still have no idea what Bitcoin actually is. No doubt there will be a several think pieces I could pull up should I ever trouble myself to find out.) I lurch from link to link, agreeing, disagreeing, changing my mind, refusing to change my mind, caring too much, not caring enough, stopping for a picture of a bear sitting at a picnic table, then clicking again, swearing in exasperation, shrugging non-committally, skimming, scanning, skirting, until finally I lie down, a million pixels dancing under the curve of my eyelids.

But it’s also worth remembering that among the blather and bluster, there is also genuine concern and anger that has to be articulated online because there are no other spaces available for it. There are death threats and vile abuse but there is also the sudden appearance of praise, support and camaraderie. Communities of allies build as the blue haze of monitors flickers late at night in bedrooms around the world. This is also the place where people discover that they are not alone in their opinions, no matter how alienating and isolated their real lives may seem. You can see how important that would be to a young person coming to terms with some aspect of their identity — a young person with a WiFi connection.

I also love the unexpected strangeness of it all. A while ago, I drifted into an opinion on the ethics of using leather, written by a fashion photographer, following her experiences at a recent photo shoot. I thought I had no particular interest in the props used (hot dogs) or the product being advertised (ankle boots) but suddenly the writing swung into memory and the composition of imagery and how the formation of those images brought back memories of her estranged grandmother. Yes, I was procrastinating that day and my time could have been much more productively spent crafting a new short story — but the democratisation of this form of outpouring meant that I still occasionally think about the smear of mustard on a calfskin upper that led to a vivid description of a grandmother’s flour-dusted hands. Surely that counts for something.

Can we do something positive and productive from the detritus of opinions that washes into our lives? Nicole Steinberg, a poet from Philadelphia, has used the headlines of online think pieces as titles for her poems. These include: ‘Why I Have To Be So Rude’, ‘Are You Useful To Anyone?’ and ‘The Tragic Life Of Ugly Birds’. In an interview with The New York Times, she says that it was her interest in the ‘cultural herd mentality’ and the sometimes absurd and deceptive language of the media landscape that drew her to write these poems: “...people are really working quite hard on crafting these titles to specifically reach into our brains or guts and instill or reinforce a certain attitude.” And to get those precious clicks on their website, I’d add. But Steinberg’s recrafting of the same language in order to further her art is a wise and playful direction in which to take these anxieties.

A quick scan of my Twitter feed reveals that these are the issues exercising various corners of the internet at this point in time: a misogynist review of a Ted Hughes biography; the cow slaughter ban in Maharashtra; Priyanka Chopra’s accent in Quantico; the 5p charge to be imposed on plastic bags by English supermarkets; an anti-austerity march in London; the impact of the latest climate change conference in Paris; something to do with The Good Wife, but since I don’t watch it, I’m unclear on the details; something that Matt Damon has said; something that Donald Trump has said; and there’s some disgust about an Airtel advertisement.

I’m not a poet, and even if I were, I doubt that I’d have anything lyrical to say in a poem called ‘You Won’t Believe What Happened When I Refused To Pay For A Plastic Bag At The Supermarket’. But I do write short stories and perhaps some sort of narrative can be fashioned involving Donald Trump, Priyanka Chopra, the ghost of Ted Hughes and a milch cow from Nagpur.

So perhaps that’s where we go from here: we try to live a little more in the real world, we try to take more time for reflection before leaping into the maelstrom, and we bring an arch inventiveness and a bit of imagination to the angst. I’m not thrilled that I might have added to some of that same angst but maybe in the spirit of this think piece, you’ll forgive me.  

Mahesh Rao’s new collection of short stories One Point Two Billion (HarperCollins India) is out now

This is not a ‘think piece’. It is not a ‘take’. It is not a ‘personal essay’. It isn’t even a slightly glossier version of an op-ed, buffed and stroked and styled and presented to you in a fancier way than would have been possible in your local newspaper or favourite online talking shop. And yet, even as I type this, I’m beginning to feel queasy and the desk looks as though it’s beginning to tilt. I’ve not been entirely honest — it looks like this is in fact a think piece after all, but it’s a dishonest one, a fraud, an impostor, a piece of writing that claims to be above the fray but it is in fact right in the thick of it.

For many of us, the division between our online and offline existences has an easy porosity, and what insinuates itself into our lives, between the frantic work deadlines, the kitchen disasters and the nights out, is the white noise of opinion. It is the fuel of the internet. There are so many claims on this sort of stuff — social media, news websites, online magazines, blogs — that the hunger is insatiable and the churn disorientingly rapid. Careers are made and destroyed, lives changed, people hounded, abuse and vitriol flung about.

This is sometimes the way it works: you see people taking pictures of their food in restaurants, the modern way of saying grace; you see the images on their Instagram feeds with a cloudburst of hashtags; you think: ‘oh well, the edges of that sea bream do look rather crispy, just the way I like it’; then on your Twitter feed you see a link to a think piece that thunders that all the food Instagramming must stop because it’s turning us into bone-headed narcissists with perennial status anxiety who can’t last five minutes without wishing to showcase some duplicitously fabulous aspect of our lives; and you think, yes well, it is all quite annoying, these steady parades of cupcakes and sushi platters and cheese boards; and the whirl of opinion continues, who are these people, they must be stopped, restaurants must ban them, ‘foodstagrammers’ ugh; there are open letters, listicles, comment threads; the words ‘pretentious’, ‘pseudo-artistic’ and ‘dumbass’ are applied with vigour; psychologists weigh in saying that this is actually a problem, a syndrome, a condition, they need assistance, sympathy and drugs, not internet derision; then the backlash to the backlash begins; and somewhere along the way, you get a mild headache, and say that, well, you don’t think you care all that much but, while staring at one of the images, you decide that you really could murder one of those cupcakes.

And so it continues: the steady whoosh of offense, censure and retort, all the while feeling that we are being manipulated into commenting, retweeting, sharing, and in one case I can remember, throwing a shammi kebab out of the window. The glib solution is, of course, simply not to look at any of it, bake a cake, ride a bike, have a wank, whatever you do, just don’t click on the link. But you know and I know that we will. It may be during the bored moment in the dentist’s waiting room, the long echo of the insomniac’s 3am hush or the anxious 20 minutes before your date shows up.

There’s the loss of nuance and the flattening of language to consider too. These opinions are often sputtered out in short bursts as we wait for the train or during an ad break and what can result is a sort of battering and levelling out of issues until an egregious use of the male pronoun is being discussed in the same terms as a police shooting in America.

I sometimes fret that I’m not doing enough of the thinking myself, that I might have permanently relinquished the silence and the distance required for reflection; that I am instead sucking up a whole stream of angry feeds that I will then regurgitate at some painful social gathering. (During an awkward silence at a dinner I once pretended to have an opinion on Bitcoin, even though I still have no idea what Bitcoin actually is. No doubt there will be a several think pieces I could pull up should I ever trouble myself to find out.) I lurch from link to link, agreeing, disagreeing, changing my mind, refusing to change my mind, caring too much, not caring enough, stopping for a picture of a bear sitting at a picnic table, then clicking again, swearing in exasperation, shrugging non-committally, skimming, scanning, skirting, until finally I lie down, a million pixels dancing under the curve of my eyelids.

But it’s also worth remembering that among the blather and bluster, there is also genuine concern and anger that has to be articulated online because there are no other spaces available for it. There are death threats and vile abuse but there is also the sudden appearance of praise, support and camaraderie. Communities of allies build as the blue haze of monitors flickers late at night in bedrooms around the world. This is also the place where people discover that they are not alone in their opinions, no matter how alienating and isolated their real lives may seem. You can see how important that would be to a young person coming to terms with some aspect of their identity — a young person with a WiFi connection.

I also love the unexpected strangeness of it all. A while ago, I drifted into an opinion on the ethics of using leather, written by a fashion photographer, following her experiences at a recent photo shoot. I thought I had no particular interest in the props used (hot dogs) or the product being advertised (ankle boots) but suddenly the writing swung into memory and the composition of imagery and how the formation of those images brought back memories of her estranged grandmother. Yes, I was procrastinating that day and my time could have been much more productively spent crafting a new short story — but the democratisation of this form of outpouring meant that I still occasionally think about the smear of mustard on a calfskin upper that led to a vivid description of a grandmother’s flour-dusted hands. Surely that counts for something.

Can we do something positive and productive from the detritus of opinions that washes into our lives? Nicole Steinberg, a poet from Philadelphia, has used the headlines of online think pieces as titles for her poems. These include: ‘Why I Have To Be So Rude’, ‘Are You Useful To Anyone?’ and ‘The Tragic Life Of Ugly Birds’. In an interview with The New York Times, she says that it was her interest in the ‘cultural herd mentality’ and the sometimes absurd and deceptive language of the media landscape that drew her to write these poems: “...people are really working quite hard on crafting these titles to specifically reach into our brains or guts and instill or reinforce a certain attitude.” And to get those precious clicks on their website, I’d add. But Steinberg’s recrafting of the same language in order to further her art is a wise and playful direction in which to take these anxieties.

A quick scan of my Twitter feed reveals that these are the issues exercising various corners of the internet at this point in time: a misogynist review of a Ted Hughes biography; the cow slaughter ban in Maharashtra; Priyanka Chopra’s accent in Quantico; the 5p charge to be imposed on plastic bags by English supermarkets; an anti-austerity march in London; the impact of the latest climate change conference in Paris; something to do with The Good Wife, but since I don’t watch it, I’m unclear on the details; something that Matt Damon has said; something that Donald Trump has said; and there’s some disgust about an Airtel advertisement.

I’m not a poet, and even if I were, I doubt that I’d have anything lyrical to say in a poem called ‘You Won’t Believe What Happened When I Refused To Pay For A Plastic Bag At The Supermarket’. But I do write short stories and perhaps some sort of narrative can be fashioned involving Donald Trump, Priyanka Chopra, the ghost of Ted Hughes and a milch cow from Nagpur.

So perhaps that’s where we go from here: we try to live a little more in the real world, we try to take more time for reflection before leaping into the maelstrom, and we bring an arch inventiveness and a bit of imagination to the angst. I’m not thrilled that I might have added to some of that same angst but maybe in the spirit of this think piece, you’ll forgive me.  

Mahesh Rao’s new collection of short stories One Point Two Billion (HarperCollins India) is out now