What it means to project sadness online is probably one of the more nuanced metaphors in terms of how people have changed in tandem with the internet.
In the late 90s and early 00s, the internet had any number of ways to publish online, but content was hardly criticized the way it is today. I’d liken it to the fact those who were online had nothing but fascination in their every click: not only was everything new, but it was also personal. Websites weren’t these well-branded order forms, they were people telling you about their lives.
And part of that was sadness. The degree to which this sadness was expressed was more platform-specific; LiveJournal was a blogging space known for being full of emo kids, while Gawker was full of sad, politically minded and celebrity-obsessed gossip hounds / gonzo journalists. For the most part, it was all pretty well-received, because the people who were online loved it and the people who weren’t thought it was all a joke that would become a fax machine.
Then came the advertising.
To get my point, it’s first important to understand these dynamics of media and people: One, advertising is news. We don’t call it news, but it’s a report of something new. That report is usually glossed-up with one form of production or another, but the only real consistency is that it is good. Advertising is always good news. No ad headline reads, Our Product Is Bad. Of course, advertisements originated as very easy-to-discern ephemera, and a large percentage still is just that. However what a thing is in reality is not what a thing does existentially, and the effect of advertising in the United States is being seen in our personal feeds online everywhere we scroll.
Because advertising is always good news, the natural balance is what accompanies advertisements is somehow not. The essence of our broadcasted stories is either in tragedy or conflict, be they sitcoms on TV or reports about defense spending in the New York Times, because they offset the perpetual comfort and calm offered by advertisements. This is, in and of itself, a whole social issue, but I’m talking about how this institutional relationship has affected us as people, now that we’ve spent 20 years taking the internet and all its potential and reducing it to a strip mall where one guy makes all the money.
As the internet—especially Facebook—began to introduce major advertising into what was a personal space, what was a free and open area now becomes a competitive one. Now there’s obvious money involved. And, in the case of the internet, the people are the products. Which means the people are also the advertisements.
This is something I’ve been struggling with online for the past five years or so, watching the internet shift, because the iteration I grew up with was so full of potential. As advertising shifted in and the internet became commercial, that’s when things started getting bad online, because people experience things differently when they know someone is trying to profit from it. Concurrently, the expressions of sincerity that had fueled the internet were now suspect: authenticity becomes a gamble with people when money is involved.
And so the internet evolved into a PR campaign for the individual. Everybody projecting their best lives, all of the time, spliced between updates on the world like a chemical company releasing new scents for cleaning products. Except, that doesn’t work for people really. The same way an ad will never read, Our Product Is Bad, a person who is advertising on their own behalf will never say, “I’m sad.”
And thus, a society of people struggling to find how to express their honest feelings with the world are met with open hostility online; despair starts getting bullied (remember that whole era online?), and people who are feeling distraught have to re-conceptualize how to express such things. We see it every day now in memes or Retweets, someone capturing despair into something snarky or referentially ironic, yet whatever it is, there is a performance of some sort acting as a veil to the truth that rests within, because this performance acts as an insulation from a personal vulnerability being too exposed to what has become a vicious haven for our most amoral tendencies, all excused because of how market viability doesn’t see in good and evil.
Online, we have become The Spectacle, and the same way our society will never be just under capitalism, the internet will not be humanist again until commerce is no longer the sole focus of our technological and social growth. For now, we cannot say we are sad unless we find a way to market it first, which is the true essence of our sadness.