Five new feelings

IM anxiety, @ rage, and other Internet emotions

By Leigh Alexander
February 20, 2011

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I’m not sure why it took us so long, in relative terms, to determine that the Internet — fast becoming the primary method by which we interact with others and consume information — might be changing us. We look at today’s teenagers — “we,” in this case, could even refer to twentysomethings like me, a massive narrowing of the gap that separates “us old folks” from “the young’uns” — and marvel at the idea that they’ll never know a world without the Internet. Like it makes them some separate species. Like the Internet is some kind of incomprehensible foreign virus forever tilting the normal order.

Yet it is, kind of. On one hand, the emergence of a discrete Internet culture is so obvious and so unremarkable that it’s discussed only in vague terms — “the digital age,” “today’s millennials,” and “the dangers of texting”-type buzzworthy reports. And on the other hand, there are some pretty specific feelings that can only happen in the Internet age, as a consequence of it. Or, at least, as a consequence of our angst about it, in the shadow of the self-obsession it facilitates, even encourages.

Here are five Internet emotions, as yet unnamed.

A vague and gnawing pang of anxiety centered around an IM window that has lulled. During this time individuals feel unsure whether they have offended the IM recipient, committed a breach of etiquette, or have otherwise spoiled a carefully crafted presentation of themselves. The individuals must be at least vaguely aware that they are being paranoid, and must tell themselves things like “he probably just stepped away from the keyboard” or “I know she is at work right now so perhaps she has stopped replying because she is busy.”

This anxiety may surface after an extremely brief lapse in the conversation (perhaps 30 seconds to a minute), and the individuals may mull a mental history of their prior IM conversations with the subject and with others in an attempt to gauge whether the lull is “normal,” or to extrapolate what the lull might indicate about the other person’s sentiment toward them. Affected individuals may experience elevated heart rate and depersonalization, as well as catastrophic thoughts about their key flaws, their romantic history, and their ability to be liked by others in the future.

A sudden and irrational rage in response to reading an “@-reply” on Twitter. The reply is not especially insulting and may only be a little bit facile, or flippant, or even overly friendly. It is essential that the trigger is not actually upsetting or offensive in any comprehensible way. For example, a total stranger with a particularly goofy Twitter avatar might tweet at an individual “hope you are staying safe in the snow, [name!] ;)” in a totally friendly fashion. But the recipient instead experiences a massively disproportionate flash of negative feeling: “Who is this person and what makes someone randomly wish for the safety of a stranger? They are probably a loser.”

Or the individual might Tweet seeking recommendations for what to watch on Hulu and receive a reply that says “have you seen x” where “x” is something completely obvious that everyone has seen, and the individual experiences distinct disgust, and the strong urge to reply with something virulent or to tweet “WHY ARE IDIOTS FOLLOWING ME WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE.”

The state of being installed at a computer for an extended period of time without purpose, characterized by a blurry anxiety undercut with something hard, like desperation. During this time the individual will likely have several windows open, a Microsoft Word document in some state of incompletion, the individual’s own Facebook page as well as that of another individual who may or may not be on the friends list, two to five Gchat conversations that are no longer immediately active, possibly iTunes. The individual will switch attention in a fashion that appears organized but is functionally aimless, will return to reading some kind of blog post in one browser tab and become distracted at the third paragraph for the third time before switching to the Gmail inbox and refreshing it again.

Such individuals experience a sense of numboverwhelm, being calmly and pragmatically aware that they have no identifiable need to be at the computer nor are they gleaning any practical use from it at that moment, simultaneously aware of wasting time and ashamed of wasting time. They may feel increasingly anxious and needful, similar to the sensation of having an itch that needs scratching or a thirst that needs quenching, but if asked would describe their sentiment as “calm” or “bored.”

The car collision of appetite and discomfort one feels when using the Internet to seek out images or information that may be considered inappropriate. The individual might be viewing a YouTube video of an extremely uncool musical performance, an awkwardly poor “stand-up” performance by a friend, or something else clicked on to be polite during an IM conversation. Despite the fact that the individual is alone, possibly wearing headphones, the individual still feels slightly self-conscious — but just slightly, in a way that is only possible in the silent digital echo chamber of the Internet.

The sense of fatigue and disconnect one experiences after typing out a long riff on some topic only to hit a wall and abandon the entire thing. Most commonly encountered when a person starts to type a comment on a website, such as a carefully considered response to a news article, blog post, or Facebook note. These people start out with a tangible urge to produce a written argument and write with intensity and immediacy until noticing they have written some two to four paragraphs, at which point they begin feeling self-conscious about what they have written and wonder whether the length is appropriate. These individuals begin adding some details and removing others, until an unacceptable length of time passes and they feel increasingly “fuzzy” about whatever has been written. The need to say something has lapsed and leaves a sense of impotence and dim frustration in its place.

Such individuals leave the unfinished content in the “box,” and become hyper-aware of its transient nature while navigating aimlessly to other tabs. They return to the in-progress content as if to assure it still exists. They read the content through for perhaps the 10th time in total and then press “ctrl-a” and “backspace” or “delete” and feel a simultaneous rush of relief and impotence when the content disappears. These people may feel depressed for several minutes thereafter.

Leigh Alexander is a Brooklyn-based writer on the art, business, and culture of video games and new media. She is news director of the game industry trade site Gamasutra, a monthly columnist at the gaming blog Kotaku, and a regular contributor to Thought Catalog, where a version of this article originally appeared.