In the US, last week was pretty horrible—a bombing, a major industrial explosion, a serious flood, and a stack of bad legislation. On my slice of the internet, the sum of our reactions to a string of awful, nervewracking events was a deafening howl of anger, dramatic opinion, blame, defensiveness, and so on.
But there were also essential things. Friends in Boston sent reassuring messages while a manhunt went on in their neighborhoods. Verified reports from journalists in Massachusetts and Texas arrived to clarify confusions and replace speculation with fact. When things are rough, it’s certainly possible to turn the computer off and walk away, but with so many of my people online, it’s also where I go for comfort and connection.
So in the last week, I’ve thought a lot about what I might do as a listener and a speaker on the internet to try to preserve the good while saving my head and heart from the worst of the shouting.
This is a very sketchy first draft, but it’s what I’ve come up with so far.
Edit the outgoing channel
The only thing I can directly control is what I say. My instincts aren’t always trustworthy in moments of intense anxiety, so I’ve tried to make myself a little list of what to do: ampify emergency relief information, pass along ways to volunteer; send brief words of comfort; do very little else.
Filter the incoming channel
I don’t like what anger and fear—mine and others’—do to my brain and my body, so I filter like crazy:
- Twitter muting: I use clients that allow keyword and user muting, ideally for set durations. I mute specific keywords, hashtags, and people, especially when something crazy happens in the world. It’s a private, non-judgy way for me to keep following people I like but whose responses to crisis events is too loud for my addled brain to handle. (I use TweetBot on iOS and YoruFukurou on the Mac, and I hear good things about Janetter for Windows and Android.)
- Twitter blocking: I’m fine with opinion that sharply differs from mine, but only when it’s civil. I block strangers who appear in my stream yelling at me. I block people who regularly enjoy trolling, and I mute their usernames as keywords so I don’t see hate-retweets. (And I turn off retweets for people who do a lot of hate-retweeting.) I even block people who abuse my friends online. I block a lot. It helps.
- Editorial trolling: On the web, I use host files to prevent blind links from directing me to sites that exist to troll us. If someone links to a piece on Gawker or Slate, my computer hits a nice blank page instead of the article, giving me a chance to realize that I’d really rather not. This is how I edit my Hosts file on the Mac. Windows users can do a version of the same thing, and there are also plug-ins for FireFox and Chrome that block sites, if you don’t feel like messing around with the command line.
- Comments: It’s easy to say “don’t read the comments,” but it’s a lot of work for the brain to ignore words that appear at the bottom of an article. On news sites and magazines I read frequently, I use user styles and content-blocking plug-ins to remove comment sections, lurid “Elsewhere On the Web” sections at the bottom of articles, and even “Recommended for you” navigation that tries to lure me into reading more articles. I think of it as moving processor-intensive work from the client side (my brain) to the server side (my technology).
- Facebook: I don’t use Facebook. That’s not the right choice for everyone, but the political extremes in my immediate family alone make it a source of high-volume quarreling and invective for me, so it’s an easy decision.
By using rules to guide my participation and tech to block the interactions that stress me out the most, I open up time and energy for longer, better conversations with people I love and respect, and I preserve my focus for the projects I choose to spend my attention on.
Most of all, I try to remember this: publishing my worries might let off a bit of emotional steam for me, but if it worsens the anxiety of those in my community, it’s a net loss. I get this wrong more than right, but it’s something I think about a lot.