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6. Shaped: “Aw Shit, I Have to Update My Twitter”

Displays of bigotry and hate are upsetting and alienating, and so we are advised to “avoid the comments.” But our relationship to online comment is more complicated than “Comments are bad. Avoid.”

Published onApr 03, 2019
6. Shaped: “Aw Shit, I Have to Update My Twitter”

“Twitter and Facebook and MySpace; all that stuff makes you warped. We’ve all basically given ourselves data entry jobs. I’ve actually heard people say things like, “Aw shit, I have to update my Twitter.” Really? You have to? That’s a big priority for you?”

—Louis C.K., Vanity Fair

“Hi, this is Jamey from Buffalo, New York, and I’m just here to tell you that it does get better.” This is how a fourteen-year-old boy began his 2011 contribution to the It Gets Better project. The year before, columnist Dan Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, began the campaign as a response to stories of LGBQT youth ending their lives after experiencing harassment. Savage and Miller posted a video in which they spoke of their own difficult times as teenagers. They assured viewers that life will get better but that teens have to stay strong, make their way through high school, and “live your life so that you’re around for it to get amazing.”1 Jamey took comfort in this message as well as Lady Gaga’s song “Born This Way.” Like Savage, Miller, and thousands of others, Jamey spoke of the difficulties he faced. He noted that at school, he was cornered in the hallways, called “faggot,” and “felt like I could never escape.” Like many of his peers, he also created a Formspring account, something “I shouldn’t have done” because of the harassing comments that followed.

As early as the 1990s AOL had an “ask me anything” (AMA) chatroom, but it was in 2009 that this question and answer (Q&A) format became especially popular at Reddit and Formspring. At the social news site Reddit, people volunteer to provide candid answers to questions from commenters. Over four thousand Reddit AMAs have at least a hundred comments each, and the most popular ones tend to be from interesting but ordinary people (such as an emergency room nurse) and celebrities (including Weird Al Yankovic and President Barack Obama). At Formspring, young people articulate their developing identities by constructing profiles and asking questions of one another. For instance, “If you signed up for the one-way Mars mission, what would you take?” and “What do you think of Rihanna’s new tattoo? Do you want a tattoo?” The questions can be embarrassing, similar to the “Truth or Dare?” game that has long been popular among adolescents. Comments can also be made anonymously; this permits a giddy sense of freedom but it can also be abused. Facebook’s 2007 Honesty Box app was similarly popular and problematic, and Formspring competitor had been linked to cyberbullying among adolescents. danah boyd, a researcher of young people’s use of social media, informally characterized this as “harassment by Q&A,” noting that “While teens have always asked each other crass and mean-spirited questions, this has become so pervasive on Formspring so as to define what participation there means.”2 Like the lists on Goodreads, which can be used to censure as well as recommend, the personal Q&A format can be considered to be a drama genre of comment. (Informational Q&A sites, where people ask about how to do something, like remove a splinter, tend to be more staid than the sites where people ask questions of each other.)

For Jamey from Buffalo, Formspring was a place where “people would just constantly send me hate, telling me that gay people would go to hell.” (As is shown in chapter 5, adults’ concerns about and appropriation of the term bullying has led younger people to prefer the terms drama and hate.) Yet in his video, Jamey assured his peers that his life had been difficult but improved after he came out publicly about his sexuality: “I got so much support from my friends and it made me feel so secure.” If family members and friends are not supportive, he recommended that his peers follow Gaga’s advice: “You were born this way, now all you have to do is hold your head up and you’ll go far because that’s all you have to do is just love yourself and you’re set.” As a counterpoint to the harassment that he received on Formspring, he noted, “I have so much support from people I don’t even know online. I know that sounds creepy but they are so nice and caring and they don’t ever want me to die and it’s just so much support for me. Just listen here, it gets better.”3 The positive power of online comment is that it allows people to connect with and support another, even if briefly and from afar.

What is heartbreaking about this video, is that Jamey’s exhortations that it “gets better” were as much for himself as for others. Although he had found some support, he was not yet out of high school or free from harassment, and he killed himself a few months later. Even today, the video continues to receive comments, ranging from the supportive “Stop all the hate. RIP Jamey” to the cruel “GO KILL YOURSELF … … oh wait lol.”

Displays of bigotry and hate are upsetting and alienating, and so we are advised to “avoid the comments.” But our relationship to online comment is more complicated than “Comments are bad. Avoid.” In boyd’s recent book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, she notes that many who were outraged by the bullying on Formspring did not realize that if a teen ignored a question, it never would be posted publicly. Young people were choosing to respond to cruel questions. Additionally, when boyd asked representatives of Formspring about this, she was told that sometimes an answer immediately followed a question and both came from the same Internet address. boyd concluded that some teens appeared to post mean questions to themselves as a type of “digital self-harm,” perhaps to attract attention or support. In a related survey, 10 percent of respondents reported having engaged in this type of behavior.4 For some, online comment is not simply an external annoyance that is easily dismissed. Just as giving and receiving feedback can entail significant emotion work, online comment can be an important part of the emotionally laden construction and understanding of people’s social selves. For some teens, not having a Facebook page or enduring the rite of Q&A could be seen as being weird or antisocial. It is complicated. We live in a world in which we can share much about ourselves, but this is not a simple broadcast. In sharing, we also craft a sense of ourselves that is subject to the comment and approval of others.

Online comment is reactive and short, and these qualities affect people in a couple of ways. First, reactions to things (such as a comment, an answer to a question, or the liking of a photo) have come to define how people see themselves. And others’ reactions to our reactions (for example, by retweeting them) are seen as a valuation of that self. Second, comment’s shortness and ubiquity mean that attention is easily and often drawn online. Additionally, the fact that all of this writing can be counted and tracked, again, affects how we value ourselves and each other. Could this be making people “warped,” as Louis C.K. posits at the head of this chapter?5 How does the nonstop stream of our own and others’ pictures and status updates affect self-esteem and well-being? Do the short and asynchronous bursts of comment that are processed throughout the day affect the ability to concentrate? Is the pervasive rating and ranking of people dehumanizing? These are complex questions without easy answers, but they are worth considering.

Self-Esteem, the Social Self, and Selfies

After the negative press about bullying on Formspring but before its dissolution in mid-2013, the site attempted to better police abusive behavior and counseled its users that “the hidden identity feature should never be used to ask questions that are mean or hurtful.”6 But the practice persists, if not at Formspring, then elsewhere. Surprisingly, some teens ask questions that seem bound to prompt insults. An “Am I ugly?” video from a young woman I’ll call “Sarah” attracted a range of terse answers, including “ugly,” “pretty,” and “beautiful.” Some comments are descriptive and implicitly racist: “you are black” and “you have big lips.” Others are explicitly and offensively so: “your not only ugly but your black too wtf nasty.” The response “I got a boner” is ostensibly a compliment but is likely intended as a vulgar insult. This video, and others like it, bear out YouTube’s reputation as a repository of some of the Web’s worse comments. The site Stupid YouTube Comments seeks to preserve such comments “so that people a hundred years from now can look back and take solace in the fact that the authors of these stupid comments have all since died.”7

Other comments on Sarah’s video were affirming, noting that “beauty comes from within” and “beauty is uniqueness, so you have your own beauty like everyone else.” I suspect that some adolescents hear much harshness and little affirmation from their peers and risk asking questions online in hopes of hearing supportive words. But they may not initially appreciate how negative comments can be. Many commenters exhorted Sarah to remove the video. She was urged to “take this down” because strangers’ opinions shouldn’t matter: “Take down this video and work on your self confidence,” and “This is just going to get haters and sympathy; you don’t need that, find a meaning, even though you are not ugly but still you can’t believe that outer beauty is everything. TAKE IT DOWN.”

For a more balanced take on “am I ugly?” one can look to Reddit. Its topic (or subreddit) has guidelines that comments should be constructive rather than overly harsh, creepy, or insulting. Consequently, in addition to some cutting comments one can find compliments, assurances that things will get better and that personality counts, as well as suggestions for posture, exercise, and style (e.g., “you’d look good with Jake Gyllenhaal’s haircut”). Submitters even express their appreciation: “Thank you all so freakin’ much for the support!!!! I cried reading these comments and my self esteem improved tenfold.”

Inherent in this phenomenon of “am I ugly?” posts is the notion of self-esteem. Yet it is not a simple idea. Confusion about how we conceive of self-esteem likely contributes to both its seeming scarcity (among the insecure) and overabundance (among narcissists).

Among scholars, self-esteem is understood as the self-evaluation of one’s worth; this is part of self-concept, the totality of thoughts and feelings about one’s self. Aside from the lonely hermit, a sense of self is understandably influenced by social interactions. That is, our sense of self is related to how we present ourselves to others and how we are received. A seminal articulation of this idea was Erving Goffman’s 1959 The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, in which he likened people to actors who perform on a stage.8 At the “back stage,” we are free of the constraining expectations of an audience; on the “front stage,” we actively manage the impressions that others have of us.

Many are surprised and discomforted to see their own “performance.” Some renowned actors, such as Johnny Depp, even avoid watching themselves on screen. Researchers have long used this discomfort to study self-esteem by exposing people to mirrors or recordings of themselves. More recently, researchers Amy Gonzales and Jeffrey Hancock compared people’s exposure to a mirror and to Facebook. Traditional theory predicts that seeing one’s Facebook profile would heighten self-awareness and diminish positive feelings and self-esteem, as often happens in the presence of a mirror. However, an alternative theory predicts that viewing one’s Facebook profile enhances self-esteem because people can selectively control what is presented there. In their experiment, sixty-three students were split into three groups and given a survey that included ten standard questions that are used to measure self-esteem. For example, participants were asked if they (strongly) agree or disagree that “I feel that I have a number of good qualities.” Members of one group were placed in a room that included a mirror. Those in the Facebook group were asked to open their profile on a computer and were left unattended for three minutes with no specific instructions before being given the survey. Members of the control group completed the survey without the presence of a mirror or Facebook. Results confirmed that exposure to their own Facebook profiles enhanced participants’ self-esteem, more so if they stayed on their profile rather than browsing elsewhere and especially if they edited their profile during the experiment.9 I think that this reaction is related to the ability to control self-presentation.

The droll Urban Dictionary defines selfie as “a picture taken of yourself that is planned to be uploaded to Facebook, Myspace or any other sort of social networking website. You can usually see the person’s arm holding out the camera in which case you can clearly tell that this person does not have any friends to take pictures of them so they resort to Myspace to find internet friends and post pictures of themselves, taken by themselves.”10 Although this derisive definition is from 2009 (and the word began to circulate a few years prior to that), it was featured as the site’s word of the day in 2012 and has since been widely covered in the news. The Oxford Dictionary named it 2013’s “International Word of the Year.” Despite those who willingly take amusing or embarrassing selfies, the common belief is that those who post them find them flattering. This conceit and some people’s propensity for selfies (a couple a day) is an object of derision for others. Such selfies are tagged on photo-sharing sites and collected on blogs. One such blog that was popular in 2013 was Cop Selfies, which collected unsettling arm’s-length pictures of uniformed police officers. Some fail selfies go viral, such as the picture of a young woman smiling up into her camera, standing in her bathroom in her underwear with the unflushed contents of her toilet visible behind her.

Most people have cringed at seeing unflattering pictures of themselves in someone else’s album. We are not in perfect control of our presentation. (In online albums, sometimes the only recourse is to untag one’s name from an image.) Some even claim that this online hall of mirrors is driving the current craze for chin augmentation, the fastest-growing cosmetic surgery in the United States. Consider Triana Lavey, a frequent user of social media, who remarked that “I have been self-conscious about my chin, and it’s all stemming from these Facebook photos.… I think that social media has really changed so much about how we look at ourselves and judge ourselves. Ten years ago, I don’t think I even noticed that I had a weak chin.” Although people can select (or augment) their own profile pictures, they have less control over how they appear in others’ photos, so some resort to altering their bodies: “Here is a weak-chin photo that I didn’t untag myself in … because I was working out really hard that summer, and I am pleased with everything else in the photo. But it’s my darn chin that bugs the living daylights out of me in this photo.… You keep looking and looking, and now it’s the first thing I look for in a photo. It all started with Facebook.”11

In the 1970s, literary critic Lionel Trilling argued that the twentieth century had seen a moral shift toward personal authenticity, which displaced an earlier focus on character and sincerity. Carl Elliot’s 2004 Better Than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream argued that this production of an authentic self was increasingly facilitated by pharmaceutical and surgical interventions. Elliott wrote that for many people, “it is now very important (in a way that it was not so important two hundred years ago) that others recognize and respect them for who they are.”12 But “who they are” is not taken as a given. People now have a proliferation of identities to choose from (body builder) and a multitude of ways to achieve their chosen identities (fitness regimes, diets, drugs, surgeries, and edits to an online profile). As noted earlier, however, the paradox of choice is that more choice does not necessarily make people happier.

The mirror is more than just a metaphor for understanding how people are shaped by comment online. It actually has been used in experiments on self-esteem. Even so, it is a powerful metaphor because it speaks to how people look to an external frame for a sense of themselves. Instead of mirrored glass, we see a reflection of our own edits and the comments of others.

Flattery versus Feedback

An unexamined premise of the discussion about self-esteem is that it is a good thing. This assumption arose in the latter half of the twentieth century for good reasons that are worth a brief historical digression, even if this assumption has led to problems today.

In 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Jane Elliott wondered how to make the issues of racism and discrimination understandable to her third-graders, white children growing up in a small town in Iowa. She asked her students to try an exercise in which they would judge people by the color of their eyes. News of this experiment spread, and in 1970, journalist William Peters filmed Elliott in her classroom for an ABC television program. In the footage, Elliot began the exercise by deciding that blue-eyed people would “be on top the first day.” She told her students about the many virtues of blue-eyed people and faults of brown-eyed people. She asked the blue-eyed children to place a fabric collar on their brown-eyed peers so that they could be identified from a distance. Blue-eyed children were granted perks such as extra time on the playground. They were encouraged to ignore the “brown eyes,” who were not allowed to use the same water fountain as the blue-eyed children. Some students quickly divided into their respective groups, and schoolyard friends were throwing insults and punches on the playground. On the next day, Elliott reversed herself and told her students that brown-eyed children were superior. The divisions that manifested on the day earlier continued, but now the brown-eyed children had an opportunity for payback. At the end of the exercise, the children reflected on the experience and gladly discarded the collars and the discrimination that they represented. Besides demonstrating how parochial humans can be, Elliott also noted that the children’s academic performance was affected: “almost without exception, the students’ scores go up on the day they’re on the top, down the day they’re on the bottom.”13 This observation anticipated two related issues in the social sciences: stereotype threat and self-esteem.

Stereotype threat is the risk of confirming a negative stereotype: people do poorly when associated with a poorly performing group. Although the initial work on this topic compared black and white participants’ performance on standardized tests, the finding is robust: hundreds of studies have found impaired performance when a negative stereotype is made salient to the performer.14 Similarly, performance can be improved via stereotype enhancement, highlighting a positive stereotype about a person’s group. Expectations, including those rooted in stereotypes, can significantly affect performance.

A more questionable implication that could be drawn from these research findings is that people must never communicate negative feedback: if self-esteem is positive self-regard, wouldn’t flattery promote self-esteem and performance? In 1986, coinciding with renewed attention to Elliott’s experiment via PBS’s show Frontline, California established a task force to investigate the relationship between self-esteem and the epidemic of “social ills.” The task force concluded in a lengthy report that there was a significant correlation between self-esteem and “how well or how poorly an individual functions in society.” Consequently, “documenting this correlation and discovering effective means of promoting self-esteem might very well help to reduce the enormous cost in human suffering and the expenditure of billions in tax dollars caused by such problems as alcohol and drug abuse, crime, and child abuse.”15

In the new millennium, the pendulum has swung once again. In a 2004 article in Scientific American, a group of researchers argued that the need to boost positive self-esteem in young people was a “myth” in need of “exploding.” They reported that decades of research had found that self-esteem is only weakly predictive of subsequent academic achievement. Even when there is moderate evidence of correlation, there is little evidence for direct causation; that is, perhaps people have self-esteem because they do well rather than vice-versa. Despite the good intentions of some parents and teachers, artificially boosting self-esteem may lower subsequent performance. Additionally, those with high self-esteem may be more likely to engage in risky behavior, have more sexual partners, and exhibit aggression.16

What is critical is how adults promote self-esteem in young people. Research on learning indicates that there are both “perils and promises of praise.” The type of praise that is given is important: does it reinforce a belief that intelligence is a fixed trait and not susceptible to improvement or that improvements can be had with further effort? This insight is based on work from psychologist Carol Dweck and her colleagues. In one experiment, fifth graders were praised for their effort or intelligence. Most of the children praised for hard work reported that they preferred “problems that I’ll learn a lot from, even if I won’t look so smart.” Conversely, many of those praised for their intelligence preferred tasks that “weren’t too hard” and “pretty easy” so that they could continue to show “they were smart.” In later tests, those praised for intelligence displayed less persistence, resilience, and enjoyment and actually did worse than the children praised for effort. They were also much more concerned about their standing relative to others. These children preferred learning about other children’s performance to learning new strategies and were more likely to lie to (distant and anonymous) children about their own performance.17

Some even argue that the excesses of the self-esteem movement have created a new wave of social ills. In their 2009 book NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman argued that the flattering of children has backfired. This inspired George Will, the conservative columnist, to lampoon a society in which children jump rope without ropes and soccer teams that no longer keep score.18 Amy Chua, a professor at Yale Law School, argued that Chinese culture (and “tiger mothers”) were “superior” on this point. She bragged that her children had never had a sleepover or play date, did not choose their own extracurricular activities, had to play either the piano or violin, and were expected to be the best student in every subject, except gym and drama. Chua wrote that “Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem” and fear damaging their kids’ psyches, whereas Chinese parents “assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.”19

Even if one finds Chua’s polemic problematic, researchers have found differences in the ways that parents approach the performance of their children. In a study that preceded Chua’s book, researchers observed the responses of Chinese and American mothers toward their fourth and fifth graders’ test performances. In a break between tests, children were reunited with their mothers. American mothers spent the time talking about something else, but Chinese mothers were more likely to say, “You didn’t concentrate when doing it” and “Let’s look over your test.” The Chinese mothers did not speak harshly, were no more likely to frown or raise their voices, and smiled and hugged their children as much as the American mothers. However, the Chinese kids’ scores on the second test jumped 33 percent, more than twice the gain of the Americans.20

At the heart of this cultural debate is our notion of what it means to promote self-esteem. If self-esteem is understood as simply thinking well of oneself and is promoted through the flattery of fixed traits (such as “You are so pretty” or “You are so smart”), such comments can backfire. However, self-esteem can also be understood as the ability to consider and make use of positive and negative feedback (for example, about what works well and what can be improved). In psychologists Richard Bednar and Scott Peterson’s book about the treatment of low self-esteem, they note that everyone receives negative feedback throughout life, much of which is probably valid. (Everyone also receives lots of positive feedback.) The extent to which we develop healthy self-esteem is not related to the number of positive messages that are received but the ways that people respond to negative feedback. Although avoidance is “based on psychological processes that deny or distort unpleasant psychological realities,” coping is the ability to face threatening situations realistically and requires “personal introspection, personal honesty, and a willingness to acknowledge openly the imperfections in the self.” This can be distressing, but learning how to tolerate the distress and grow from it is an important life skill.21 In this sense, self-esteem is understood as a positive self-regard because it allows people to know how to manage and use feedback. This type of skill seems especially important given the ubiquity of comment, but we’ve only begun to think about how to maintain such self-esteem in the online realm. Instead, many seem preoccupied with refashioning themselves (be it at the gym or in Photoshop) and with their standing relative to others, which might actually be making them feel worse.

Social Comparison and Well-Being

In addition to chin surgery in the United States, eyelid surgery in South Korea might also give a hint to how sense of self and well-being are affected in the age of the Web. In their mirror and Facebook study, Gonzalez and Hancock found that people who browsed beyond their own profiles reported slightly lower self-esteem than those who stayed on their profiles. Just as presentation is social, so are people’s expectations for themselves: we compare ourselves to others. The newly affluent South Koreans are the most wired people on the planet, for example, and also are big consumers of cosmetic surgery. One in five women are reported to have had a procedure, the most popular of which is blepharoplasty in which the eyelid is given a fold—which is the Caucasian norm but also occurs naturally among some Asians. A possible anxiety underlying this phenomenon is suggested in a popular song by the K-pop band 2NE1: “I think I’m ugly and nobody wants to love me. Just like her I wanna be pretty, I wanna be pretty.” Perhaps media exposure and cosmetic surgery are independent effects of a newly affluent society, but in a media-saturated environment, people find it difficult not to compare themselves to others (“just like her”).22

The logic of comparison and competition in a global market is described in Robert Frank and Philip Cook’s 1996 The Winner-Take-All Society. Their lengthy subtitle captures their thesis: How More and More Americans Compete for Ever Fewer and Bigger Prizes, Encouraging Economic Waste, Income Inequality, and an Impoverished Cultural Life. This competition and comparison likely diminishes our sense of well-being. Frank and Cook touch only briefly on matters of appearance, but they quote a character from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Bluebeard who notes that “a moderately gifted person who would’ve been a community treasure years ago has to give up … since modern communications has put him or her into daily competition with nothing but the world’s champions.” Similarly, a hundred years ago people might have been grateful to be modestly attractive, with good teeth and hair. Today people are competing with celebrities, who themselves undergo surgery, which further shifts the standards of “normal appearance.”23 This privileging of constructed identity, proliferation of identities to choose from and ways to achieve them, and exposure to world-class successes and beauties might lead some to feel rather lacking.

This assessment of our own standing relative to others (social comparison) might be why Facebook use can be related to feelings of dissatisfaction, including envy (much as the wicked queen felt toward Snow White when she looked into her “mirror, mirror, on the wall”). Several studies of Facebook users have found that greater use of the site is associated with an increased belief that others are happier and doing better; the more Facebook “friends” people have, the more they feel this way.24 It appears that it is the passive consumption of others’ pages that is associated with life dissatisfaction “as it triggers upward social comparison and invidious emotions.” The acronym FOMO (fear of missing out) is used online to describe this impression that other people are doing more and having greater fun. Holiday pictures (online and off) are especially (even if unconsciously) chafing because it is one of the few ways in which people can brag about how great their lives are without being accused of doing so. As a result, some users react to others’ displays of awesomeness with more self-promotional content of their own, leading to a “spiral” of self-promotion and envy on an already “envy-ridden” Website.25 However, many studies find correlations between these behaviors and not causations. Maybe people feel sad before they log on to Facebook? To address this, a different team of researchers sent text messages to subjects five times a day with a link to a short survey. Through this “experience sampling,” they were able to draw a closer connection between Facebook use (rather than prior mood) and a small but significant decline in how people feel.26 Even so, it is important to acknowledge that people do different things online, including on Facebook. Staying in touch with a family member from afar likely affects one differently than seeing how much fun dozens of casual acquaintances appear to be having.

Even beyond seeing photos of others’ marvelous vacations, people can dampen others’ moods because of a tendency to show only positive emotions to others. Researchers led by psychologist Alex Jordan wondered if the seventeenth-century thinker Charles de Montesquieu was right when he wrote, “If we only wanted to be happy it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, which is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are.” He was right. In studies of people’s estimations of others’ feelings, Jordan and his coauthors found that people typically overestimate others’ positive emotions because of “the unobservability of others’ solitary experiences” and “preferential suppression of negative emotion.” That is, people tend to be more cheerful in the presence of others, and even when they are not happy, they hide it: “misery has more company than people think.”27 To return to Goffman’s metaphor of the stage, we are always in the presence of and performing for others in the age of ubiquitous comment.

Of course, the relationship between mood and presentation is not a simple one. As the philosopher and psychologist William James is said to have remarked, “I don’t sing because I’m happy. I’m happy because I sing.” Sometimes people can affect their own moods, which can be socially contagious, but the chronic suppression of emotion is associated with life dissatisfaction and depressive symptoms.28 And shouldn’t people be able to share their troubles with good friends? In a study of college students, researchers Junghyun Kim and Jong-Eun Roselyn Lee attempted to untangle the relationships between number of friends, honesty in self-presentation, perceived social support, and well-being. When participants were asked how much social support they felt they had (such as remembered birthdays, congratulations, and condolences), those with few friends and those with many friends felt worse. That is, seeing only a few friends online might be disappointing, seeing many might make one feel affirmed and connected, but too many friends might be a sign of desperation. In fact, related work has found that those who are low in self-esteem tended to have more Facebook friends than others, perhaps as a compensation. Also, although positive self-presentation related to subjective well-being, so did honest self-presentation: a sense of well-being could come from putting on a happy face for friends, but so might the social support received after being honest about a difficult time.29 The consequences of technology use can vary and are dependent upon who uses it and how they do so, but it is clear that exposure to a steady stream of others’ comments can affect us.

Media Multitasking and Attention

Much of the research noted so far has been done with young people: they are still “finding themselves” and seem conversant with technology. There is also the matter of convenience: much of what is known about human nature is gleaned from college students because professors can easily recruit students into studies with a few dollars or class credit. In the age of the Web, however, when a brief comment is easily made or read on a whim, we are all subjects in a cognitive experiment. Many people, young and old, feel the pleasure and pain of the compulsion to “update my Twitter.” As comedian Louis C.K. quips: “Really? You have to? That’s a big priority for you?” C.K. suspects that we are losing the ability to focus on what is important and joked that if Jesus himself returned, people would be too busy tweeting to listen: “they’ll be like ‘Oh my god, Jesus is right here in front of me right now.’ ‘I took a twitpick of Jesus, Oh my god, Jesus is trending right now.’”30

The research focus on youth might also be because of an assumption that they are especially proficient with technology, leading them to sometimes be characterized as “digital natives.” However, media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan claims that this notion “that all young people are tech-savvy” is a “generational myth.”31 In the media classes he taught, a few students might have excellent digital skills, but most had not authored a Web page using the hypertext markup language (HTML). Other researchers have noted that race, gender, and class can affect which and how youth use online services.32 Nonetheless, young and old tend to buy into the myth that the many who make daily (if not hourly) use of social media are similar and expert in their usage. Even actual experts are prone to overconfidence. As Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman notes, overconfidence often emerges when someone has a good story to tell regardless of what the data say. And the story that many tech users tell themselves is that they are good at swimming in the sea of comment. Because comment is short (so it hardly seems like an interruption) and reactive (prompting a desire to respond immediately), people tend to think that they are good at it, but the data suggest otherwise.

Clifford Nass—the Stanford University communication researcher who recommended that feedback is best offered in a sandwich of broad praise, followed by brief focused criticism, and finished with detailed positive comments—has been studying the question of what he and his colleagues call “media multitasking.” In a 2009 study—using college students, not surprisingly—they found that heavy media multitaskers were more likely to perform worse on task-switching tests because they are more easily distracted. Those who reported higher media multitasking in their lives tended to be slower when switching between categorizing letters (vowel or consonant) and numbers (even or odd). This does not necessarily mean that multitasking undermines the ability to task-switch. It may be that those with an inability to focus gravitate to media multitasking and confuse their preference for it as a skill. In any case, media multitasking is also related to a broader set of concerns. In a study of media use and multitasking among eight- to twelve-year-old girls, Nass and his colleagues found that negative social well-being was associated with media multitasking and use (both interpersonal, such as a phone call, and noninterpersonal, such as watching a video). Video use was particularly associated with negative social well-being indicators (for example, feeling less social success, not feeling normal, having more friends whom parents perceive as bad influences, and sleeping less). Conversely, face-to-face communication was strongly associated with positive social well-being. Again, correlation does not necessarily mean causation, but the authors concluded that “growth of media multitasking should be viewed with some concern.”33

© 2010 CC-BY-3.0

In her 2010 book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Sherry Turkle, technology scholar at MIT (and licensed clinical psychologist), was less hesitant in attributing feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and being overwhelmed to an engagement with media. She argued that multitasking now includes relations with others: “When someone holds a phone, it can be hard to know if you have that person’s attention. A parent, partner, or child glances down and is lost to another place, often without realizing that they have taken leave.” We seem to have found a way to spend time with others without being present, which seems magical at first but in time becomes a curse. And it is not just adults worrying about kids; Turkle’s interviews with youth uncovered their concerns: “it is commonplace to hear children, from the age of eight through the teen years, describe the frustration of trying to get the attention of their multitasking parents.”34

Even successful professionals like law professor Lawrence Lessig (mentioned in chapter 1), struggle with online distraction. In the acknowledgments section of a recent book Lessig thanked colleagues, friends, and family. He also thanked a computer program that disables the Internet for a period of time. He noted that “without the program Freedom (, this book would not have been completed.”35 Similarly, I use a browser extension that does the same for a few hours every morning. For many, freedom can be found only away from the ubiquity of online comment.

A Narcissistic Epidemic?

The distracted attention, unhappy comparisons, and vain selfies (as well as sexting and reality TV) prompt some to worry about an increase in narcissism. The alarm is regularly raised in the media, with headlines explaining “Why Narcissism Defines Our Time” and asking “Is Facebook Turning Generation Y into a Bunch of Narcissists?”36 Comment is short and easy to send, so it has led some people to produce a stream of comment about their lives that ten years ago would have looked neurotically self-obsessed. Some have linked young people’s narcissism to the inattention of parents who are too busy with their own gadgets. Humorist James Napoli wrote a farcical story in which Facebook replaced the like button with a “love I never got from my parents” button:

“We all know what it is to check your Facebook status six, seven, eight times an hour to see if anyone has clicked ‘like’ to demonstrate how much your funny or insightful post has enriched their lives,” a company spokesperson told this reporter. “We at Facebook understand that it’s not that big a leap from this sort of desperate need for approval to realizing that you are expecting your imaginary Internet friends to fill the gaping hole of inadequacy you have felt since childhood.”37

In many popular reports and discussion, the word narcissism is used in a general and pejorative manner that loosely means self-obsessed. Clinical definitions are more precise: narcissists are preoccupied with success, power, and beauty; they demand and reward attention and admiration but respond to threats to their self-esteem with rage and defiance. There is a paradox at the root of their disorder, as suggested by psychologists Carolyn Morf and Frederick Rhodewalt. Although it is inappropriate to claim that narcissists necessarily have low self-esteem, they can be understood as having a grandiose and vulnerable sense of self that they attempt to support by “continuous external self-affirmation.” The “narcissistic paradox” (and the source of the consequent suffering) is that they yearn and reach for self-affirmation in ways that destroy the very relationships on which they are dependent: they are characteristically “insensitive to others’ concerns and social constraints, and often take an adversarial view of others,” so “their self-construction attempts often misfire.”38 Narcissism is typically assessed via a standard questionnaire called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI, or the shorter NPI-16). Like many personality dimensions (such as extraversion/introversion), psychological disorders are often partly assessed by way of questionnaires, but the definitions and assessments of some psychological disorders are controversial.

Perhaps the most prominent proponents of alarm about increases in narcissism are psychologists Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell. In their popular book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, Twenge and Campbell report that data from thousands of college students show that narcissistic personality traits have risen as fast as obesity rates since the 1980s, especially for women, and this rise is accelerating. As evidence of the increase, they note that in 2006 one out of four college students agreed with the majority of items on the NPI. Also, nearly one out of ten Americans in their twenties (one out of sixteen for all ages) has experienced symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). (Although their analysis of the increasing NPI scores in general student populations is compelling, it has been contested by others.) Twenge and Campbell attribute this to indulgent parenting, celebrity worship, reality TV, and the Internet (which provides “the possibility of instant fame and a ‘look at me!’ mentality”).39 They write that the Web displays and encourages an unhealthy self-obsession, as is exemplified by the names of popular sites (such as Myspace, Facebook, and YouTube). They claim that many blogs “are vapid exercises in self-expression and attention-seeking” and that comment systems are biased, unfair, and promote conflict. They object to the notion that all opinions are equally valid because most commenters “have no earthly idea what they are talking about. They think they do—common among people with a tendency towards narcissism—but they’re clueless. The comments that do say something intelligent are often lost in the mountain of ignorance.” To counter this, Twenge and Campbell argue that parents should say no, make choices for their children, and send careful messages about competition and winning (that is, winning is not everything and not everyone wins all the time). They also advise parents to abstain from buying their children “I’m awesome” t-shirts.40

This is a rather broad polemic. Fortunately, there are studies that look at social media and narcissism, though they should be understood with some caveats. First, research on this topic tends to use NPI scores that are correlated with the behavior of users or the features of their Facebook profile. Correlation does not equal causation. Social networks might attract those with narcissistic traits, or perhaps people are more narcissistic when online. Second, even finding a correlation between narcissistic personality traits and media use does not mean that people have a clinical disorder.

With these qualifications in mind, what have researchers found? In a 2008 study, high NPI scores did correlate with higher quantities of Facebook interaction (number of friends and number of wall posts) and with the profile’s attractiveness, self-promotion, and sexiness—as assessed by independent research assistants.41 In another study, the authors noted that online social networks are an environment that is well suited to narcissism since they permit people to maintain hundreds of shallow relationships in a highly controlled environment. They found correlations between NPI-16 scores and Facebook use (number of times checked and time spent) and self-promotion via the main photo and status updates. They also discerned a gender difference in that men displayed more self-promotional content in About Me and Notes, whereas women did so in the Main Photo section.42 In short, there is evidence that well intended efforts to “promote self-esteem” in a society that is increasingly media saturated, competitive, and global are associated with some people being more self-obsessed and dissatisfied than they would have been decades ago. I believe this is heightened by something I refer to as quantification.

The Logic of Quantification

The 1979 romantic comedy 10 made stars of Dudley Moore, playing an infatuated man in a midlife crisis, and Bo Derek, playing his fantasy woman. Derek’s slow-motion jog on the beach can still be found on YouTube, and the ranking of another’s attractiveness from one to ten is sometimes still called the “Bo Derek scale.” (In the film, Derek’s character broke the scale as an eleven.) People are predisposed to scales and rankings and imbue them with an almost magical potency. In the 1984 band mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, the lead guitarist proudly shows off his amp, which goes to eleven—“one louder” than other amps. Yet he has no idea how to respond to the question, “Why not just make ten the top number and make that a little louder?” He pauses, befuddled, and responds “but these go to eleven.”

In the preceding sections, I have discussed how comment today affects people’s sense of self, well-being, and attention. Its ubiquity reflects (and perhaps distorts) images of ourselves and others, and its shortness and asynchronicity lead to distraction. Comment also can be quantified, as seen in the earlier chapters on reviews, ratings, and manipulation. Comment can be as short as a simple click of a button (such as a like or +1); these can easily be tallied and used to evaluate people in disconcerting ways.

The rate-everything craze that is exemplified by the Jotly app (discussed in chapter 3) is only one example of a proliferation of people-rating apps and sites. In 2008, launched with the intention of being a “Yelp about people” that permits anyone to opine about others. Users could leave comments without registering, with no way for the target to opt out. The site was widely criticized and ridiculed and closed within the year. In 2010, the employment Website launched to similar criticism about how members could anonymously rate one another’s professional performance. Dozens of venues (including The Economist) published stories about the site, and most were incredulous of the concept and its success.43 To encourage constructive reviews, Unvarnished required people to use Facebook to login, so although reviews were anonymous, the administrators presumably could use the Facebook account to identify bad actors. Additionally, people could join only by being invited by a member and reviewing that person, which would likely be positive and hopefully create a constructive culture. The site relaunched as in the same year, claiming that it had succeeded in creating a positive community: 65 percent of ratings were five-star, and only 2 percent were one-star.44 In 2012, the organization changed again: both the name of the project and its philosophy of crowd-sourced reviews were dropped. Under the name TalentBin, the service created profiles of people that were based on professional information found throughout the Web. (It was purchased by the employment Website in 2014.) KarmaFile was fairly savvy, letting colleagues rate the expertise, motivation, and professionalism of their peers. An aggregate score was then created with an associated confidence level (“score strength”). Those reviewed had the ability to see their raters and aggregate scores but could not link a specific rating to a particular person. Those reviewed could ask the site to reject inappropriate reviews (although the applicant’s rationale for the rejection would be part of the profile), or they could choose to hide their profile.45 Despite these refinements, KarmaFile’s Website and Twitter account have not been updated since early 2013.

Putting aside the failures of these particular ventures, why are people keen to rate and rank others? As is shown in chapter 1, from a communications perspective, rating can be seen as a form of gossip. It is a convenient way to assess the relative social standing of peers and form alliances. Even the rating of others’ attractiveness can be seen as a form of social posturing: publicly assessing others (whether asked to do so or not) is a gesture of social power. The chapter on manipulation shows that an economist is likely to think of ratings in terms of information asymmetry. How can people best transact with others without knowing about their characteristics and abilities (that is, how to avoid a lemon)? Another way of thinking about this is from the perspective of a social theorist or historian. In 1983, sociologist George Ritzer published an article arguing that the McDonald’s “rationalization” of food production can serve as a useful model for understanding changes in society. He argued that McDonald’s succeeded because of things like efficiency and predictability and that these same forces now shape our lives at work, in school, and even when on holiday. “Calculability,”a drive toward quantifiable measures, is a defining characteristic of contemporary “rational” society. Why? Ritzer noted that quality is “notoriously difficult to evaluate” and yet computers are good at counting: “How do we assess the quality of a hamburger, or physician, or a student? Instead of even trying, in an increasing number of cases, a rational society seeks to develop a series of quantifiable measures that it takes as surrogates for quality.”46 Thirty years later, apps and sites can rate and rank both burgers and doctors. These quantifiable measures are then subject to manipulation. And we are just beginning to ask how these systems can perpetuate social biases. Even absent purposeful manipulation, some might be harmed in a world in which everything and everyone are rated. For instance, the car service app Uber lets the passenger rate the driver and vice versa. Might an older passenger be avoided because he received only four out of five stars from past drivers who had to place his walker in the car trunk? As the practice of rating increases, so does the leakage of our biases into the world.

Ritzer is not the only one who has noted this trend. Since the early twentieth century, dozens of thinkers have identified and decried the rationalization of people as instrumental means. What is interesting about rationalization in the twenty-first century is that it has been crowd-sourced. The assessment and evaluation of people by large institutions is now complemented by dozens of other sources, including the comments from our online “friends.”

Out with Klout

Klout—whose motto is “Influence your world”—is (in)famous for making use of the information that can be found online. According to its Website, it collects over twelve billion “signals” every day from eight different social networks (like Twitter, Facebook, and Wikipedia) to compute a score representing a person’s influence (President Barack Obama is a ninety-nine; Justin Bieber is a ninety-two):

The majority of the signals used to calculate the Klout Score are derived from combinations of attributes, such as the ratio of reactions you generate compared to the amount of content you share. For example, generating 100 retweets from 10 tweets will contribute more to your Score than generating 100 retweets from 1,000 tweets. We also consider factors such as how selective the people who interact with your content are. The more a person likes and retweets in a given day, the less each of those individual interactions contributes to another person’s Score. Additionally, we value the engagement you drive from unique individuals. One hundred retweets from 100 different people contribute more to your Score than do 100 retweets from a single person.47

Of course, as soon as something is quantified, others often are willing to manipulate it. There are hundreds of pages with suggestions for how Klout scores can be improved. Some are the “right way” (for example, tweet with @names, and connect one’s social network accounts), and some are not. Klout warns that it closely monitors its data and its algorithms look for “inauthentic behaviors—spambots and the like. The Score will continue to evolve and improve as we add more networks and more signals.” During a controversial 2011 algorithm adjustment, some people objected that their scores had plummeted by as much as twenty points.

Beyond bragging rights, there are other benefits to actively participating at Klout. Much like Amazon Vine reviewers, those who do well in the scoring system (“influencers”) can receive “perks” and receive free or discounted products and services. The “Perks Code of Ethics” notes that no one is obliged to comment about a perk but that if you do, “Klout asks you to disclose you received a sample.”48 However, in Klout’s own example, in which users received a free digital camera, the tweets raving about the camera make no such disclosure. Klout is not alone in this space; there are also Kred, PeerIndex, and Radian6, among others. At Kred, highly rated people can become “leaders.” One such leader condemned Klout’s perk program and lauded the higher usefulness and ethics of Kred “rewards.” At Klout, “For every cool well-publicized Perk—like entry to Cathay Pacific’s lounge or a weekend with a Chevy Volt—there were also plenty of examples that made it a figure of derision in the social media community, like modest hair gel samples and gifts that were out-and-out irrelevant to recipients (dog food offered to people that didn’t have dogs, and so forth).”49

Critics of Klout include more than just its competitors. Beginning in 2011, articles began to appear online with titles like “Klout Is Bad for Your Soul” and “Delete Your Klout Profile Now!” People had begun to resent the allure of the service. Klout CEO Joe Fernandez stated in an interview that he did not originally appreciate how curious people would be to find out their scores: “I didn’t think about the ego component of having a number next to your name. … we’re trained to want to grow that score.”50 Despite his disclaimer, people are preoccupied by rankings, and it is unlikely that he failed to think about this human tendency. In fact, I think he probably counted on it as evidenced by the site’s automatic enrollment and scoring of users. A New York Times article reported on how Klout had “dragged the unwitting across the Web” by creating profiles and scores for users’ Facebook friends, including their children. Klout user Maggie Leifer McGary found that her thirteen-year-old son had been scored. (When she told her son this, she said he asked “What’s my score? How many points do I need to get stuff?”) Klout subsequently said that it would allow users to delete profiles and would not automatically score the Facebook friends of its users.51 Despite this assurance, it has not always been easy to find the page for profile deletion.

Other objections included resistance to quantification and concerns about who benefits. According to social media blogger Rohn Jay Miller, the advertisers, not the users, are the ones who really benefit: “Social communications should be for the benefit of the people doing the communicating. Influence cannot be measured, just as beauty and cool cannot be measured. Measuring ‘social influence’ tries to sell the lie that such things as ‘social influence’ and ‘connectedness’ can be measured quantitatively, then acquired, packaged and sold to the highest bidder.”52 Miller believes that Klout will succeed only to the extent that people believe in its “lie” and recommends that they delete their profile and move on. Similarly, Alexandra Samuel, another social media author, notes that the “cellular-level awareness” of retweets and +1s empower only the social network platforms: “The more we each pay attention to still-questionable metrics like Klout or Twitter mentions, and the more we choose to structure our work and lives to optimize them, the more they matter. We are creating a world in which we live our online lives as a scorecard.”53 Samuel advocates challenging this self-fulfilling tendency by way of a “Social Sanity Manifesto” that lists “commitments that you can make to escape the measurement trap, and bring some humanity to the people you interact with online.” It includes deleting your Klout profile, connecting only with those you actually know, not gaming online metrics, and ignoring (or at least pacing the consumption of) ratings and analytics.

For many people, it is hard not to believe in the “lie” when running in the quantification rat race. This can prompt anxiety, as Klout user Calvin Lee noted during a holiday: “I was worried that brands couldn’t get in touch with me. It’s easy for them to forget about you. And I knew my Klout score would go down if I stopped tweeting for too long.”54 Or it might prompt manipulation. Data analyst Gilad Lotan noted that when he purchased fake Twitter followers, these “fake friends” had the “real benefit” of attracting additional authentic followers. Having thousands of followers made him look more credible, allowed his Klout score to shoot upward, and improve his placement in Bing’s search (which collaborates with Klout). The ease and effects of this manipulation prompted Lotan to fear that “What used to be completely frowned upon, is now effectively considered an act of social media optimization.”55 There also have been reports of people who were not hired or promoted because of their scores. Even dating services have claimed to use Klout scores in their matching algorithms.

Quantified Relations

Contemporary dating exemplifies many of the themes of this chapter. People are competing in a market in which some assess others on a ten-point scale. Although many of the young men who use the Bo Derek scale today were born after her jog on the beach, the practice continues. In fact, one can find long conversations online about the scale, such as an argument about its strictness: “The biggest mistake men make with the base ten rating scale is not applying hard limits. If your scale goes from 1–10, no girl can be an 11. This is science, people, and in science everything has to fall on or within the limits of your scale.” This preoccupation with quantification is especially pronounced in the self-styled “seduction community,” wherein a “hot babe” (HB) is commonly understood to be a 7.5+. On a seduction “lingo” site, the entry for “Decimal Rating Scale” notes that the scale provides a shorthand for men to record and discuss their exploits: “Field reports will often read, ‘got a HB8 blond school girl to go back to my place’ as an indication of the level of her physical beauty.”56

Women seem to be less interested in identifying the subtle differences between a seven and an eight and more with avoiding the “dicks.” I first encountered an Internet dick list in the 1990s. Nikol Lohr, proprietor of the Website Disgruntled Housewife, described its origins in 2002: “The Dick List began 7 years ago at the Pasadena house. It was a very girly house for a long time. It was also a very listy house. So in honor of both of those characteristics, we developed an oft-revised, publicly posted Dick List on a little white board in our kitchen.” The list had two purposes: “1) promoting girly solidarity through bile-spewing; and 2) reminding us that certain guys were real dicks.” The online version typically obscured last names when browsing, but the database was searchable by name and location.57 This practice continues today with apps like Lulu (“A girls-only space for insights on life and love”) and sites like Woman Savers (“Research & Rate B4 U Date”). As I argue in an earlier chapter, lists can prompt much drama.

As seen at Klout, people do become preoccupied with their standing relative to others. In the studies of feedback to children, the kids who were most concerned with scores failed to learn and improve, tended to misrepresent themselves, and were preoccupied with the performance of others. In dating, there can be a similar preoccupation with one’s “league” and trying to impress. I recall reading the complaints of a woman about a man’s need to be rated (his car, his outfit, and the restaurant) as part of his attempts to impress, but his rating preoccupation led her to think that he was subpar.

The abundance of choice and scrutiny in dating may paradoxically make it more difficult to find long-term relationships, as is discussed in Dan Slater’s widely read article “A Million First Dates.” Slater notes that a buffet of choices might lessen daters’ satisfaction and commitment (via the paradox of choice). As the selection grows, daters might become “cognitively overwhelmed” and more likely to make careless decisions, which leads to less compatible matches. An interviewee in the piece, a single man in his thirties, reflected on a relationship from a decade earlier: “I’m about 95 percent certain that if I’d met Rachel offline, and if I’d never done online dating, I would’ve married her. At that point in my life, I would’ve overlooked everything else and done whatever it took to make things work. Did online dating change my perception of permanence? No doubt. When I sensed the breakup coming, I was okay with it. It didn’t seem like there was going to be much of a mourning period, where you stare at your wall thinking you’re destined to be alone and all that. I was eager to see what else was out there.”58 But the seeming glut of many other singles can turn eagerness into anxiety. New innovations are continually deployed so that daters can filter through as many prospective mates as quickly and efficiently as possible. This began with online dating, but even for those who want a more personal touch, face-to-face contact can be brief. Speed dating—where candidates rotate through brief interactions and note the people they would like to speak with further—has been around for several years. A handful of new dating services combine online profiles, Klout scores, and speed dating into “PowerPoint parties” where each dater has six minutes to convince the assembled group of their romantic virtues.59

© 2010 CC-BY-3.0

Because of a mass-market advertising campaign, it even is possible to estimate the value of relationships. In 2008, Burger King introduced its “angry whopper” to the United States (“deliciously hot with a kick”). As part of the media campaign, the company launched the Whopper Sacrifice, which awarded a free Whopper sandwich to people who downloaded the Burger King Facebook app and unfriended ten acquaintances. The ten unfriended folks were informed that they had been dropped for the sake of a sandwich that costs $3.69. At least 23,000 people participated before the campaign was discontinued.60 (Facebook asked Burger King to alter their application, and the company was approaching its planned limit of 25,000 in any case.) Of course, people could easily be refriended, and this should not be interpreted as a valid finding on the worth of networked relationships. Yet it speaks to the broad recognition of the self-serving and quantified character of online life.

How to Thrive amid Comment?

Substantive research suggests that in the age of the Web, we are changing, being shaped. The distraction, ubiquity, and comparison that are inherent to online comment cannot be denied. The question is are we being “warped,” as Louis C.K. suggests? It’s a difficult question to answer. Social scientists’ findings based on brief and artificial interactions among college students do not necessarily generalize to the actual behavior of larger and more varied populations. And reports of correlations in larger populations do not necessarily mean causation. But people make arguments based on many reasons—research, interviews, lived experience, and history. Opposing sides contend that things are getting worse and conversely that things have never been better. Confoundingly, it is possible for both of these things to be true for different people or even for the same people at different times or in different aspects of their lives. When I awoke one morning to the sound of helicopters and smell of smoke, I checked local online news sites, which did not report on the event for thirty minutes. But people were tweeting the details of a house fire a few blocks away. Rarely does anything happen in the world that I can’t wait a few minutes to learn about, but sometimes it is convenient. Nonetheless, the constant trickle of novelty and news can be a great distraction. So like Professor Lessig, I sometimes disable my connection to the Web when I need to focus.

But we need not be paralyzed by indecision about whether we are riding on the highway to heaven or going to hell in a hand basket. As the subtitle to Howard Rheingold’s book Net Smart declares, we can learn “how to thrive online.” In his chapter on attention, he notes that he begins the first day of class by asking students to turn off their phones, close their laptops, and spend one minute being mindful of how their attention shifts. Later in the semester, he allows five students to have their computers open at a time. These little tasks prompt students to think—perhaps for the first time—about their attention and use of technology. He recommends that readers who want to improve their focus can use techniques and tips, such as creating blocks of uninterrupted time with a clear intention of what they want to achieve.61 I use his book in my own course on “Communication in the Digital Age,” and I think that students appreciate it. Instead of hyping digital natives or decrying a generation of narcissists, we need to find ways to develop a robust self-esteem that can handle ubiquitous comment, an attention that is resistant to digital temptation, and relationships that are safeguarded from the colonizing logic of quantification.

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