Our Burning Search for Catharsis
We search for an emotional release after tragedy, but is it healthy to seek it online?
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Reminder: We are skipping the April 29 edition of our podcast to move equipment and solidify some adjustments to the show.
The roof of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, France, collapsed during a massive inferno on Monday. Many were shocked to watch a spire fall as the flames ravaged the structure. It was an awe-inducing sight; the embers had cast the smoke billowing from the building bright orange and red.
A silver lining in the catastrophe is that a French fire official told press that the structure had been “saved from total destruction.” Some of the art is reportedly in tact, too. But let me be the first to tell you: the roof is done-zo! No word yet on that hunchback guy.
Authorities are investigating the fire as an accident, but of course that never stopped anyone from wheeling out thinking-face emojis, affixing their tinfoil hats and cobbling together conspiracy theories. Like the well-tuned machine it has become, far-right- and conspiracy-theorist-aligned media pumped out content fitting any and every angle that suited their own narratives and agendas before the flames were even extinguished. This kind of development used to baffle me, but I have what I tell myself is “bullshit fatigue.”
The sad truth is that the creation of misinformation has become a cottage industry online and people are raking in way too much money and attention to ever be shamed into quitting.
We won’t go over all the resulting nonsense here because BuzzFeed News reporter Jane Lytvynenko already rounded up some of the most prevalent emerging narratives. YouTube did its part by giving people watching the Notre Dame fire from the U.S. some information about the 9/11 terror attacks, which—hold on, my producer is telling me that it seems YouTube did not, in fact, do its part.
Oh well! It’s not like we’re going to give that site up!
Speaking of conspiracy theories, we’re talking to Anna Merlan on next week’s episode of sh!tpost.
There’s a 2018 album from The 1975 that is quite good. It’s called “A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships.” This song, “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)” is a loud, melodic end to an album that captures a lot of the existentialist loneliness and darkness that being addled to the internet can bring on inside a person.
If you can't survive, just try
“I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)” by The 1975
It’s very easy for me to feel bound in nihilistic dread over the state of the internet. Our world is getting increasingly dumber with broadband, despite the fact we can gather any knowledge we wish to possess with just a few keystrokes.
There’s a reflexive thing some people do online after sad events happen where they remember their own experiences with a place or person and then they post about it. This happened after the Notre Dame caught fire. Jokes were made about every person who studied abroad in France sharing their photos from the Notre Dame in response. Those folks come from a good place, I think.
I assume people generally want to show that they empathize and feel pain alongside those directly effected, and that they ultimately seek to connect with others who share their memories. But in a vacuum, I can’t help but get the impression that these displays are incredibly self-serving and will exist years later as artifacts of our national internet addiction.
The reality is that there is no such thing as a neutral social media post. We post what we do as a means of attracting attention, for the subject of our posts or for ourselves. A deeper question is whether what we post does the former or the latter; the honest answer is that it’s almost always both. I’m not singling out any specific user here because this a trend that exemplifies a larger problem we have: posting through pain.
It’s kinder to just let people express their sorrow in whatever way grants them catharsis. After all, traditional wisdom tells me it’s awfully insensitive to throw an 👏 epic 👏 clap 👏 back 👏 at a distraught person working their way through pain. I’d argue that sharing photos from a visit to the Notre Dame cathedral three summers ago is probably a net neutral, and if it helps someone, I am not going to tell them how to cope. It’s important to let the steam out, and an Instagram post could very well be that release valve for some people.
That being said, I’m reminded of a classic 2015 bit by comedian Anthony Jeselnik called “Thoughts and Prayers.” It goes like this, transcript via Scraps From the Loft:
[O]n the day of a tragedy, victims are not on Twitter. Am I wrong? Tell me I’m wrong. The day of a tragedy, victims have got victim shit to do. No one is ever… No one is ever putting on a tourniquet, asking, “Hey, are we trending?”
No. This is who I’m making fun of when I make a joke on Twitter the day of a tragedy. The people who see something horrible happen in the world and they run to the Internet. And they run to their social media, Facebook, Twitter, whatever they got. And they all write down the exact same thing: “My thoughts and prayers…” “My thoughts and prayers with the people in Aurora.” “My thoughts and prayers with the families in Boston.” Do you know what that’s worth? Fucking nothing. Fucking less than nothing. Less than nothing. You are not giving any of your time, your money or even your compassion. All you are doing, all you are doing, is saying, “Don’t forget about me today.” “Don’t forget about me.” “Lots of crazy distractions in the news, but don’t forget how sad I am.” Those people are worthless and they deserve to be made fun of. They’re like a wedding photographer who only takes selfies. You understand?
Jeselnik caused a stir with that bit from his routine when it originally aired, and it compounded with other controversies that have followed his work making shocking remarks from the stage. But that part of his routine has stuck with me for the last few years. It’s much cruder than I can imagine myself being on this topic, but for some time I have wondered whether I agree with him on this point. At what point are we showing empathy and when do posts like this become an exercise in vanity? Watching the internet react to this event on Monday, I started thinking about it again.
Social media is built on a modal that rewards input of information by providing users a sense of relevance and belonging via likes, shares, retweets, and all those other engagement metrics that ruin our brains. These platforms use a Pavlov’s Dog style conditioning system to train us to develop impulses to use the platforms to share what were previously intimate, private life experiences.
After my grandfather died last year, I remember sitting in the airport and staring into the status box on Facebook for a long time. Extended family and friends should probably know about this major life happening, I thought. But something about the situation felt gross and I ended up emailing and calling those who needed to know and exiting out of Facebook for a few days.
How many “likes” represents a proper amount of empathy? At what point are you hijacking someone else’s experience? I don’t have the answer to those questions, but if you think you do, email me (firstname.lastname@example.org). I’d love to hear your thoughts.
I asked folks in our Discord server what they thought about this, because I struggled to write my thoughts in a way that feels totally coherent. Here’s what one person wrote back:
“I feel the same way you do, and I think I struggle in the same way you do to find an accurate way to put my feelings into words. What I struggle to put into words is the fact that I don't like identifying any individual or individual act as being self-inserting, but speaking broadly about what happens it always feels gross to me.”
"It reminds me of when there was the terrorist attack in France and people were adding the French flag to their Facebook profile pics "in solidarity."
Ultimately, I think we should be straightforward with ourselves at what posts like these say about ourselves and our relationships with technology. If for nothing more than the sake of being real with ourselves.
Digital catharsis isn’t inherently bad.
A listener called into the show’s voicemail inbox tonight and told me that Peepee the Cat had died. The account was a staple of “Weird Twitter” that featured most prominently a feline called Peepee. It was an island of fun that existed as a refuge on a site often littered with the worst the internet has to offer.
Peepee’s owner (“Peepee’s Dad”) said the little critter died of kidney failure, which is a condition that generally effects older cats. The posts on this account did go a little too hard sometimes, as the caller pointed out to me, but I believe the gentleman running the account was sharing photos of his furry son in hopes of making the internet a little bit sillier and a whole lot funnier. Finding catharsis online can result in a purer sense of release and joy for some. For many, sharing small moments from our lives can be deeply rewarding.
“Dad” wrote, “I encourage everyone who wants to make an account for their pets to do so. it’s fun and cathartic and our friends deserve to be celebrated.”
In the same post, the cat’s owner said that since sharing news of Peepee’s passing, he has received emotional support in this deeply painful passing of his cat, whom he loved very much.
“i can’t thank you enough for all the kind words, drawings, pictures, and thoughts—i wish i could respond to everything but just know i probably saw it and cried,” he wrote.
Thanks for the laughs, to a cat named for urine.
Now, lets get to some wonderful shitposts I’ve been seeing.
I should have known better than to emo post on the timeline, but it was worth it for this.
I was thinking the other day about this 2017 tweet posted by comedian Brandon Wardell. It changed the way I used Twitter after I had time to think it over.
A block is free content and makes you look dumb if you have any Twitter “clout” at all. My, what a dumb sentence I just wrote.
The Notre Dame cathedral fire was surprising to many people, but thank the Lord that someone is thinking about gamers in these trying times.
Peter Daou, a Hillary guy and the founder of Verritt, expressed a sentiment I think we’ve all felt at some point.
Matt Walsh is our wet boy.
Only one person can set us back into reality in these trying times: Mr. Gotcha Guy.
The Joe Rogan Experience podcast is a boys’ club, it turns out. This is not very surprising to me, but to see the numbers is still jarring. I knew it was reality but didn’t grasp exactly how prevalent the situation was. Via Media Matters’ Cristina López G.:
Last weekend, I had a truly bizarre time at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., and I do this for you all so read about it at Right Wing Watch.
Also, God bless the NYPD.
And then, finally, there’s whatever this is.
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