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Five Emotions Invented by the Internet

Posted by Josh Rothman  January 18, 2011 01:55 PM

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New technologies like the internet don't just make things more convenient; they broaden our emotional landscapes, too. Leigh Alexander, a hipster video-game journalist and author of the blog Sexy Videogameland, charts the emotional frontier. As she sees it, there are at least "Five Emotions Invented By the Internet." She explains them at the online magazine Thought Catalog.

Even if you've never felt "a sudden and irrational rage in response to reading an ‘@-reply’ on Twitter," you've almost certainly encountered "the state of being ‘installed’ at a computer or laptop for an extended period of time without purpose, characterized by a blurry, formless anxiety undercut with something hard like desperation." (College students, one suspects, spend at least a third of their lives this way; grad students, two-thirds.)

Other emotional situations that strike Alexander as genuinely new: the sequence of enthusiasm, self-consciousness, and then sudden indifference one goes through while writing a contribution to an online discussion; the "collision of appetite and discomfort one feels simultaneously when using the internet to seek and consume images or information that may be considered unseemly or inappropriate"; and "a vague and gnawing pang of anxiety centered around an IM window that has lulled."

These aren't new emotions, exactly. But they are well-observed and novel emotional occasions, with roots in the peculiar, diffuse socialness of the internet. They all have in common, essentially, a David-Foster-Wallace-esque self-consciousness about being self-conscious even though you're all by yourself. Strikingly absent from Alexander's list is anything along the lines of 'the overwhelming sense of amazement one feels when the internet connects you to people from around the globe' - probably an emotion that only old fogies, who remember the world pre-internet, are capable of feeling. (Alexander is not an old fogey.)

In general, of course, communications technologies like radio, the telephone, or television have been creating these sorts of feelings more than a century. (Just ask anyone who's yelled at the television and then felt weird about it.) The magic of these technologies is that they allow a social experience to span a vast distance; the strangeness is that they offer only a part of that experience. That's not necessarily bad, though. Sometimes partial or compromised experiences are also heightened ones, which help us notice things we wouldn't otherwise. (That's why John Cage, for instance, loved silence.) In a celebrated passage of The Guermantes Way, Proust writes about the experience of using a telephone for the first time:

Every time that my grandmother had talked to me, I had been accustomed to follow what she said on the open score of her face, in which the eyes figured so largely.... Having it alone beside me, seen without the mask of her face, I noticed in it for the first time the sorrows that had cracked it in the course of a lifetime.

At the frontiers of technology, we often watch our own experiences more closely. Unfortunately, we'll never read a Proustian description of Facebook; like Alexander, though, we can attend to our own feelings as we tiptoe along the technological frontier.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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