Emotional Botox for the Soul
*This article was originally posted on Gate 37 and was written by John Ovans.*
Upworthy is turning you into an emotional crackwhore. You won’t believe what happens next.
Last November, Upworthy reached an audience of 87 million people thirsty for a boost of something totes emosh. You know how it goes: they spool you in with the promise of melting your glacial heart and then suddenly, there you are, glassy eyes transfixed to a video vignette about Stuff That Matters. You know it matters because there’s a headshot of an earnest-looking person hovering next to it.
The thing is, everyone knows that earnest people are infinitely sinister. I once met an American girl who smiled so earnestly that it was clear for all to see that her soul was as black as the Duke of Hell’s black riding boots. These are the sorts of people who end up working at Upworthy. They deal in worthiness and, in case you hadn’t noticed, they’re attempting to turn us all into emotional crackwhores.
To be honest, that’s a metaphor that doesn’t really hold up. Because I’m not addicted. Instead, I’m just becoming emotionally stunted. Let’s take a look at the mechanism behind the transaction. First up, the succubus titles, commonly known as linkbait. This one’s a shit‐for‐brains classic: “His first four sentences were interesting. The fifth blew my mind,” which is only redeemed by the congenial image of the author’s head actually exploding. Non-specific language is generously spaffed throughout: everything is “mind-blowing” and “stirring” and, worst of all, “inspiring.” The frequency with which they’re used suggests that they’re the buzzy adjectives that get emotionally slutty readers clicking most.
I’m certainly not the first to be irked by the fact that the titles are linguistically repetitious; frankly they can tell you only so many times that you “won’t believe” something, or expect you to give a fuck about “what happens next” before it feels natural to want to hurl a fucking thesaurus at them. So you see, they’re basically inelegantly chucking out crumbs and luring us into an enormous digital gingerbread house. I’m playing Hansel and Gretel undercover and I’ve just logged on to have a nose at what’s going on. “What’s It Actually Like In North Korea?” they pose, like some ghastly dinner guest engaging you in inescapable intellectual masturbation. The answer? “A Million Times Worse Than You Imagine,” apparently. I’m baffled by the use of that unhelpfully reductive idiom, as though it’s actually accurately quantifying the life awfulness that those poor bastards are enduring.
The less said about its tagline, meanwhile, the better. Did I just say that? Sorry, I meant of course, let’s mercilessly dissect it and talk about how annoying and stupid it is. “Stuff that matters.” Oh piss off, you sanctimonious wankers. It’s followed by, “Pass ‘em on.” The colloquial abbreviation is enough to make you vomit, everywhere.
I read an article online that described Upworthy as a “viral savant,” and since then the content itself has started to creep me out, too. The site is what people in the ‘biz call “socially optimized” – emotion that’s been actively CURATED for its liberal, lefty audience that by rights should include me. But when an issue is tidied up and boxed into a three-‐minute (fittingly, the length of the perfect pop song) vignette to which there’s only one possible response, I’m not really sure it’s conducive to real engagement or investment. Instead, you’re in and out like a cheap shag.
And the problem is, it doesn’t stop at Upworthy. I’m struggling to digest all sorts of things. Canapés of inspiration are being served up everywhere, such as the viral YouTube video of the cast of The Lion King ‘spontaneously’ breaking out into a rendition of The Circle of Life on an airplane. Millions of people all over the world mawkishly professed that it had ‘brightened up their morning’ – but a friend told me she refused to click the link to it, as she knew that doing so would “demonstrate her inhumanity.” In other words, she would have reacted exactly as I did: with a terrifyingly stone cold impassiveness.
People are always banging on about the fact that we’re becoming desensitized to violence by prolific and explicit media coverage, but really, I think we ought to be just as concerned about our ability to emote at the other end of the spectrum. It’s a bit like when people get too much Botox and then can’t smile. Oh my god – it’s emotional Botox. My ability to empathize is heading the same way as Nicole Kidman’s face.
Is the Internet making me hard as nails? Soon, is the only time that I’ll be able to express myself is when I’m watching a new episode of Game of Thrones? Although, let’s be honest – there’s nothing like watching the Red Wedding to make you feel truly alive.
This article was originally posted in April 2014.