The Internet's Newest Plague: The Cult of Negative Viral Content
If your Facebook feed looks anything like mine, it's getting overrun with normal people using weird image macros to bitch about "haters", "cheaters" and "whores".
"If they love you like they say, then they wouldn't treat you like they do. Sometimes words lie."
"When the past calls, let it go to voicemail. It's got nothing new to say."
"A murderer will kill you, a thief will steal from you, but you'll never know where you stand with a LIAR."
"Sweet as sugar, hard as ice. Hurt me once, I'll kill you twice."
You've probably seen them. Those bizarre Facebook almost-memes featuring quasi-inspirational, pseudo-philosophical, passive-aggressive messages laid over stock photos of sunsets and couples laughing in the rain. It's hard to recall when you started seeing them – were they posted by someone you went to school with who's since changed their surname? Your cousin's ex, who added you after a brief introduction at a funeral? – but if your experience is anything like my own, you now can't escape them.
These statuses, Jpegs and other bits of shareable, discontented content are all symptoms of a new paranoid rhetoric, a grand delusional discourse that has ensnared swathes of the British population. You'll find the proclamations posted up and down your Facebook feed, slapped onto your Twitter timeline like a Post-it note from a psychopath, stinking up your Instagram like a corpse at the back of the bus. They're ugly and stupid and hysterical and disturbingly banal, and I'm totally fascinated by them.
I'm not sure where I first picked up on this craze myself. Maybe it was when I was grimly scrolling through the profiles of my old classmates at some dreadful hour; maybe it was when I found myself looking on the Facebook pages of people who'd recently been convicted of violent crimes; maybe it was on Sarah "the most normal person on Earth" Harding's Twitter. Or maybe they're just absolutely everywhere, unavoidable if you spend even ten minutes a day on social media.
This shareable negativity is a phenomenon that is yet to be named. It's not a content format used by the big new media publishers. It's not something obviously monetised. But it is something pervasive and instantly recognisable, with most of the images in this pandemic of self-seriousness sharing one thing: portentous quotes attributed to no one; words of wisdom that come from nowhere; mottos that nobody has ever stood by.
You know, things like this:
These messages seem to have a reach and a popularity that transcends that of almost any branded viral content. You can spend hundreds of thousands of pounds getting world-class athletes or rising electronica producers to sell your product, but a Jpeg bearing the message "Everybody knows how to love, but few people know how to stay in love with one person forever" can pick up twice the traction with none of the email chains or drawn-out strategy meetings.
Despite their inherently irritating nature, I quickly became obsessed with these posts, spending hours trawling the archives and related pages of the accounts that spawn them, finding one angry platitude after another. There are pages called: "I'd rather be single than lied to, cheated on and disrespected" (109,000 people Like this); " Minion Jokes" (180,000 Likes), "if you want me in ur life. figure out a way to put me there. im done trying" (624,000 Likes). Those aren't even particularly strong examples of the form. There are so many, with so many Likes, that it's almost impossible to work out who the "brand leader" or originator is.
Having spent night after night fully immersing myself in their strange codes, I noticed these pages come in a few distinct forms. The most common are the sentimental, romantic, schmaltzy ones, such as "I can never forget u bcoz I love u". Three million people "Like" this. For scale, about 4 million people Like the Guardian.
On the surface they peddle an old-fashioned idea of romance, one that seems to appeal to people who got into long-term relationships at a young age and want to rub that in the face of the sad, lonely masses, with their soulless dating apps and itchy STDs. The content is standard Hallmark fodder: naff and hopelessly corny. It usually involves cuddling toddlers; sepia images of disembodied hands grazing each other; women in dresses sitting on rock pools; or park benches in the autumn.
You know the drill:
Where it starts to become compelling is that, alongside the entry-level sentimentality, lies an aggressive, nasty undertone, mainly focusing on mythical two-timers, cheats and players. Between all the niceties, you'll pick up on a "It sucks when you realise you rejected other people for one person that wasted your time," or a, "Your girlfriend is gorgeous and loyal, why flirt with other girls? It's like throwing away a diamond and picking up a rock."
These pages have a dubious by-trade in shaming cheaters. They pride themselves on their zero tolerance of adultery; it's the one thing that seems to bond them, to the extent that all these imagined people playing away from home have become a kind of mass folk devil, an intangible bête noire for self-righteous, wronged romantics to rally against.
While adultery obviously isn't something to be championed, these groups talk about people who cheat like they're legitimate subhuman scum, in the same way people in the New World used to view spinsters, or women who'd had children out of wedlock. As witches, misers, scoundrels; somewhere between Monty Burns and the Catman of Greenock. Anyone who's ever drunkenly snogged someone else at a festival or received a saucy Facebook message is cast into this dark chorus-line of "nasty bastards and bitches", scorned by the thousands of people who share the posts.
The same goes for single people, who are regarded either as pathetic creeps or loveless monsters. The messages don't believe in any kind of relationship other than one that results from meeting the right person and never, ever giving them up, because all love is at first sight and lasts for eternity.
The second genre of posts are less to do with romantic relationships and more about managing your social circle. You'll find plenty of fine examples on "Spirit Science" (7.6 million Likes), if you're so inclined. The page is primarily dedicated to niche science stuff, but has an unexpected sideline in statements like: "Sometimes you have to give up on people, not because you don't care, but because they don't," and: "Some people are like clouds: once they disappear, it's a better day."
These kind of posts perpetuate quite a dangerous notion: that your friendship group isn't just comprised of people with whom you share common interests and mutual friends, but is actually a complex network of scumbags that you must navigate carefully or die, full of the very worst personality types the world has to offer: liars, fakers, schmoozers, snitches, bullshitters, haters, bitches, bastards, sluts, creeps, two-timers and wing-clippers. They too are cast out into the darkness with the cheaters.
Of course, you could see all this as a bit of fun – catharsis, a way of lashing out at the people who fuck us over in our everyday lives. However, the kind of language you see here doesn't just manifest itself in these silly little pictures, but in the way some of us now talk to each other online. I've lost count of the amount of times I've seen distant acquaintances and old school friends post statuses like "some days you find out who ur real friends are", "nice to know who's there for you and who's not!" and the occasional more flagrant "dirty little bitch".
Want to feel even worse about your species? If you search the hashtag "whore" on Twitter, you'll find thousands of seemingly normal people talking about their personal lives in the most horrifically candid way imaginable. Same goes for "fake", "cheat" and all the other standard terms we tar each other with online.
There's not a whole lot of positivity you can take out of all this; it's inherently negative, embarrassing, annoying and pretty fucking depressing that human expression – among a certain section of society, at least – has reduced itself to an endless stream of bitter platitudes.
More than that, it's a sad state to be in when this kind of worldview is now accepted; that it's not seen as sociopathic, or even slightly unusual. That it's OK to act as if everyone around you has a secret agenda; that your friends could turn against you at any moment; that our sexual desires are evil; that people who choose to be single are pathetic; and that we're all important enough to fall victim to grand conspiracies against us. Like we're all Big Brother contestants. As if we're now so certain of our importance in the world that – like celebrities – we all have our own set of haters, out to wrong us in whatever way they can.
Unlike the posts themselves, I don't believe the people sharing them are innately nasty or pathetic or stupid; I think they're just victims of a new kind of unpleasant clickbait: negative virality. It's a way of generating traffic that trades on our fears, rather than making us laugh or showing us something we haven't seen before.
Human beings are fragile creatures, trying to make our way through a story we don't know the end to. We don't have witches, or conscription, or hell, or immediate nuclear threat any more. But, in 2015, we do have one fear that shadows all others: rejection. We fear dying alone more than anything, and these click-traps play on that. They catch people at a low ebb, when they're on a break-up, or when a friend has wronged them, offering them solidarity in the form of aggressive words about disloyal people. Clicking "Like" on one of these pictures might not seem like a particularly violent act, but the images themselves are definitely guilty of perpetuating this detrimental mindset we seem to be digging ourselves into.
Humans are fallible, and it's likely that anyone posting, sharing or Liking these kind of posts have been guilty of whatever it is they're railing against at some point in time. Hopefully, once we realise that we're all as lost and frightened and useless and fucked as each other, we'll leave them all behind, confining them to the graveyard of the world wide web.
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