The problem with the internet

Well, one of them, anyway. It’s too anecdotal.

According to an account of uncertain authenticity, Earnest Hemingway once wrote a six-word story:

For sale: baby shoes, never won.

It’s easy to scoff at first, until you delve a little deeper into the noodle incident: why would someone have unused baby shoes and want to sell them? Imagine a devastated father-to-be, all prepared to welcome a child into the world, when his wife leaves him. Or does he kill her in a fit of drunken rage? Or have an unpaid debt to the wrong person, who assaults his wife, causing her to lose the baby? Or perhaps the couple loses all their money in any number of tragic ways, and have to sell their gift of love to their child just to eat? Or myriad other plots? You can create your own characters and plot, embellish them as much as you like, and no one can say it’s not what happened. Instead of writing one story, he wrote hundreds, with classic Hemingway compression. You can unpack so much emotion from just a few words.

On the internet, there are millions of six-word stories. Let’s pick one source of them as a case study. Post Secret is a project conceived of and run by one man, Frank Warren, who asked people to send in anonymous secrets on the backs of postcards. It sounds peculiar, but thousands of people have mailed in a pint-sized artistic confession. When they’re good, the secrets unleash as much empathy as Hemingway’s story, with the added bonus of (ostensibly) being true. When they’re bad, they’re just a fleeting statement of emotionally-charged fact. There are multiple books of secrets published, plus a free sampling every Sunday at In September, an iPhone app launched allowing users to view and submit their own secrets digitally. Users can “heart” a secret, and the tally is shown to everyone, or upload another secret in reply. Worried about too much of a good thing, I posted one myself: “I’m afraid this app will cheapen the secrets.” Looks like I was right.

Most secrets fall into one of these categories: women complaining about men being jerks (notable subcategories: rape victims, domestic violence victims), women sharing too much about their bodies (pregnancy tests, bowel movements, periods, sexual fantasies, abortions and miscarriages from their context untimely ripped), gay pride (women coming out as lesbian or bisexual, anti-homophobia), movies (Harry Potter is so much better than Twilight, The Notebook), substance abuse (x days clean, cutting), body image (anorexia = attention seeker, fat = beautiful), military (soldiers hugging their kids, wives grieving when they come home in a box), cats and dogs (we found him on the streets and took him home, she is the only reason I’m alive, she fell asleep on my leg and I have to pee but don’t want to disturb her), couples (rings, should I text him/her), people in hospitals, claims that this man who I don’t recognize is the sexiest man alive, and of course meta chatter (this is not a secret, this is a repost, I hearted this and it went to zero, if this gets x hearts I’ll do y, why isn’t this top hearted). If you think that sounds like one big dysfunctional family, you’re spot on. The saddest part is that, despite the sheer volume of secrets, most of them are still excerpts of the human condition. They are are nothing to gloss over, categorize, and become numb to. And yet that’s what happens.

The human brain is wired to make connections and find similarities. The internet is designed to bring an unprecedented amount of people and data together in one place. Put them together, and the result is inevitable: for every heartbreak, for every laugh, for every emotion, there are thousands if not millions of other people experiencing essentially the same thing.

There are two reactions to this realization.

The first is to lament that grouping similar stories together strips them of their unique nuances. When everything can be superficially and neatly pigeonholed, human connection comes by pursuing depth over breadth, by focusing on quality over quantity. If everything is the same at first glance, we are prompted to take a deeper look into our stories, to expect more of them, to ask them to defy the molds we have built for them. Instead of Post Secret or Facebook or memebase or TVtropes (links not provided to save hours of productivity), watch TED or read Malcolm Gladwell (or both). They both provide an insightful, clever, and sometimes quirky approach to stories about the human condition. Alternatively, you could abandon recorded media entirely and have a face-to-face conversation. That works too.

The other reaction is that of course human experience is not unique. We should embrace and celebrate the fact that we all go through the same trials, joys, and screwups. We can take strength knowing that we’re not the first and we won’t be the last. Being able to compare someone else’s situation with our own is the basis of empathy. We can’t hope to relate to someone unless we can relate their life story to our own. The internet provides access to potentially millions of people with similar stories, providing more opportunities for sharing and mutual growth than ever before.

Pare it down enough and what’s left is similarities and differences, a binary more similar than different to most things worth thinking about. They don’t neatly correspond to  good and bad. Instead, finding connection requires a balance. Too similar, and it’s PostSecret’s numbing repetition of the same shallow complaints. To different, and there’s not a shared language with which to communicate.

I would like to be able to leave it there, not to take a side, and to say we’ve reached a perfect equilibrium – but I don’t think we have. I think we have too much similarity. The internet is too anecdotal: the tweets are overwhelming the magazines, and the secrets are overcoming the conversations. There’s only so much empathy we are humanly capable of before we go deaf from the cacophony. The resulting media landscape is robbing us of our patience, and therefore our ability to forge meaningful, lasting relationships. Instead of a hundred six-word stories, I’d much rather have a single six-hundred-word story.


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