Not so long ago, I got into some online beef with the horology community. I won’t go into details, but something I published culminated in an avalanche of emails, tweets and Instagram DMs from pissed off horologists (people who study the measurement of time).
This went on for days. And just when I thought the anger had subsided, my social handles would be passed around another horology page and it would start up again, like clockwork. “Are you fucking stupid!!!” a random man typed into my IG DMs.
Anyone who has an internet-facing job, or spends a lot of time online, will have at some point experienced the sort of heated conflict that wouldn’t necessarily happen IRL. The world riles us up, and instead of walking away like we might in person, we react impulsively, with the virtual space between us creating a buffer. The internet has always been this way – it’s hardly famous for its good vibes – especially on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, where people are more into sharing opinions than posting fit Halloween selfies or kitten pics.
Over the past few months, however, I’ve noticed a subtle yet tangible shift. If the mood on social media was bad beforehand, it has now shifted up a gear and become an even angrier hellscape.
I’m not the only person who’s noticed this. “I’m getting into more arguments, for sure,” 21-year-old Sophie* tells me. “Any opinion I post has somebody respond with an essay about why I’m wrong. It wasn’t so much like this before.”
Khi, 23, agrees: “Being stuck inside is making people behave loopy online. I got called a ‘whiny bitch’ the other day for saying I miss gigs.”
Lucia, 24, says she’s been getting “more hate” than usual online during the past few months, but she’s also been more inclined to fire back: “Because things are so heightened right now, and people are stressed, I’m noticing a lot of tense back-and-forths on my timeline. I’ve also noticed that I’m more likely to respond to criticism rather than ignore it, because I’ve been sat at home ruminating.”
Graham Jones, a psychologist who specialises in the internet, tells me that being stuck inside during a pandemic is definitely going to affect people’s online behaviour in a substantial way. “About one in five people can have increased levels of anger as a result of being isolated,” he explains.
“There is little doubt that lockdowns affect people's mental health, and a sizeable number of people will become angry. Given that they are forced to be at home, it is highly likely they'll express their anger using online forums and social networks,” he says, adding that “the echo chamber effect of social networks can make things worse”.
At times, all of this anger can tip over into online abuse. A recent survey reported that 46 percent of women and non-binary people had experienced online abuse since the pandemic began, with one in three reporting that the abuse had worsened. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 84 percent of respondents said this online abuse came from strangers. In other words: people are literally hurling hate into the void.
It can be hard to navigate Being Online right now, when the fix isn’t as simple as “logging off” – something it’s tricky to do when there’s very little else to do. Still, Jones suggests finding other means of distraction, like learning something new or enrolling in something fulfilling, like an online course – although this is obviously much easier said than done. Spending time online can also feel like the only way to sustain connections and uphold community, making it hard to disregard our phones entirely.
Yes, it can be an angry place, but on the flip-side there are also lots of good memes.
Khi tells me she avoids some social media platforms more than others, which helps. “TikTok is a lot funnier and lighter,” she says. “And on Instagram I unfollow anyone that makes me feel like shit and only follow pals and meme accounts. Twitter and Facebook are to be avoided at all cost.”
I’m with Khi on this one. Giving up social media entirely can feel impossible, but changing the way you use it can be a positive step, whether that’s getting rid of certain apps off your phone, or following puppy accounts on Instagram. And if you feel the anger rising within yourself? Scream at your phone, not the person on the other side of it.
*Some names have been changed.