How It Started, How It’s Going

For decades, the internet has shaped the way we communicate, but two years of us being extremely online hit fast forward on its real-world impact.

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In May 2003, Bill Wasik, then senior editor of Harper’s Magazine, anonymously sent an email to about 60 friends asking them to participate in what he described as a “mob.” The email instructed participants to, with watches synchronized, descend on a Claire’s Accessories near Astor’s Place in Manhattan from four directions.

At 7:24 p.m., participants would arrive and do nothing. At 7:31 p.m. on the dot, they would leave. “Why would I want to join an inexplicable mob?” the email asked. Answer: “Tons of other people are doing it.”

What sounded like a mob scene was actually plans for the first flash mob. Wasik was bored and wanted to conduct a social experiment critiquing scenester culture in NYC. By playing to people’s fears of missing out on the latest fad, Wasik later explained in a March 2006 piece for Harper’s, he felt he could create art.

Unfortunately, the NYPD was tipped off to the plan. When the mob arrived, a police truck and six officers were waiting and before a single scrunchie or five-pack of lip gloss could be jostled, it was over. Undeterred and a bit wiser, Wasik tried again two weeks later. This time, 200 people arrived at the rug department in a Macy’s, claiming to be part of a commune in search of a “love rug.” Success.

The love rug mob made national headlines. Wasik hosted a few more mobs, but generally, the internet took over from there. People filmed their own flash mobs and shared them on social media. The mobs got more elaborate, adding music and intricate choreography. It was a bizarre cultural moment, one of the first times internet life and real life overlapped. If you were in a public space and music started, you knew what was happening, and—even though the first flash mob prompted a police response—everybody just accepted it. Why? Because internet.

“It becomes kind of a script,” Santa Clara assistant professor of communication Melissa Brown says. “You have an online plan that takes shape in an offline space, and even though these people are violating social norms by randomly dancing in public, the context of it being an internet phenomenon gives it a layer of approval.”

In the two decades following Wasik’s flash mob, the internet has continued to shape the way we communicate and live. But for the most part, it’s happened at our own pace; we allow some pieces in and push back on others. For example, flash mobs were made illegal in some cities by the early 2010s and, in 2016, five organizers were actually jailed for a flash mob gone wrong in Spain. The internet was winning the battle, but we had boundaries.

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, we hit fast forward. The internet is not real life, but for almost two years, it was all many people had. We woke up early in the morning, opened our laptops, and our entire day took place on a device: work, news, exercise, parenting, worship, relationships, entertainment. Work and leisure and community were all occurring, quite literally, in the same chair and under the same roof, the only break coming when the day ended.

And we’ve been feeling the consequences. Not just in K-Pop TikTokers spamming political rallies or memes hitting the streets, but in more subtle ways—the way we listen, interact, build community, and understand the world around us. We might be back in person, but we’re still communicating like we’re online.

“Our phones bring technology with us everywhere. They are always with us—like a security blanket,” says Laura Robinson, professor of digital sociology. “But under certain circumstances, our dependence on digital technologies can facilitate negative outcomes—especially when digital technologies are increasingly central to multiple life fronts.”

IS THIS CONNECTION?

The human brain is wired for connection, counseling psychology Lecturer Ling Lam explains. It isn’t just preference; it’s a need. “On a very neurophysiological level, it’s literally oxygen and nourishment for our brain.”

When COVID arrived and venues for real-life connections were cut off, people found community online: Facebook groups, Twitter feeds, even comment sections on TikTok. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Since the days of role-playing or multiple-user dungeon games of the early internet, people have enjoyed the anonymity of the internet to explore interests. For marginalized groups like LGBTQ people who sometimes aren’t safe in public spaces, online communities can be life-saving.

What made the pandemic different was that it wasn’t just a small segment of the population playing a fantasy video game; almost everyone transitioned to living their lives almost completely online. And though muscle-bound avatars were replaced by filtered Instagram pictures, our online personas and communities weren’t necessarily any more real.

“In some ways, online does mirror real-life relationships, but it amplifies it and pushes it to the extreme,” Lam says. “Online, it’s easier to compartmentalize and dissociate and only show a part of ourselves. We can choose when we show up, how we show up, to whom we show up.”

While internet relationships aren’t real, we’re conditioned to feel that they are. Online communication is grounded in a concept called parasocial relationships, which are relationships with performers in mass media. If you’ve ever seen a fan run up and hug a celebrity, that’s a parasocial relationship. Even though the celebrity is a stranger, the person feels they know them because they consume their content. The concept started with television, but reality TV and social media expanded it. Influencers perform authenticity as part of their character. As users get more accustomed to parasocial relationships with influencers, we start to feel we know everyone we encounter online. And even as users, we encourage it.

“The influencer, in a way, is in the pulpit at a church, and everyone in the comment section is the congregation listening to the sermon, so to speak. Whatever is endorsed in those spaces can feel empowering.”

In text-based communications, when facial expressions and body language are absent, users can perform identity through emojis, GIFs, memes, and adopting in-group language—all of which can be manipulated.

When the pandemic started and people sought intimacy, social media stepped up, with TikTok serving as a big driver. In 2020, TikTok had just 66.5 million monthly users in the United States. By 2022, it had nearly 85 million. Unlike Instagram, where people post their most polished selves, people on TikTok are unfiltered. They post videos of themselves cooking and talking about family stuff. “They’re very down to earth,” Brown says. “It almost feels like FaceTime. That intimacy can make you feel close to people you don’t necessarily know when you’re in that comment section.”

But getting all your intimacy online can be dangerous. Social media algorithms make online communities not just ideologically driven but also driven by gender and race. Extreme opinions and misinformation go unchecked in favor of prevailing opinion. Any person you don’t like can quite literally be blocked out of existence. “The dynamic between the influencer and the follower turns them into a disciple of a lot of the norms,” Brown says. “The influencer, in a way, is in the pulpit at a church, and everyone in the comment section is the congregation listening to the sermon, so to speak. Whatever is endorsed in those spaces can feel empowering.”

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This isn’t just in political spaces but also in seemingly innocent communities like ones focused on exercise or parenting. For example, in a male-dominated workout community, misogynistic behavior might not just go unchecked but could be part of the in-group persona. Users take that misogyny with them when they return to the physical world. But you can’t block coworkers who disagree with you or teleport to another town when you run afoul of the rules. There are consequences in real life that people are able shirk online thanks to the anonymity of the internet.

On a societal level, the echo chamber stoked online is far more dangerous. Brown points to a study by Jennifer A. Reich on vaccine refusal in the early days of the internet. This anti-vax sentiment popped up not from conservatives but was couched in feminist choice by left-leaning mommy blogs and listservs.

While theories that measles and polio vaccines caused autism were debunked, anti-vax sentiment went unchecked in these online communities. In fact, community members believed in minimizing the risk of infection by shrinking their social circle, which lowered not only exposure to disease but also to contrasting ideas. Since the diseases had largely been eliminated in the United States thanks to vaccines, these parents could refuse vaccines without fear. Fast-forward 20 years, measles and polio have reemerged in communities with low vaccination rates. You cannot simply avoid everyone forever in the real world.

The participatory nature of the internet also makes it possible for bad actors in larger groups to use misinformation for catastrophic outcomes. Flash mob creator Wasik pointed out that the same technology and collective potential of the internet that fueled flash mobs 20 years ago has been used for flash robberies over the last decade. “These kids are taking part in what’s basically a meme,” Wasik told Wired in 2011.

And if the stakes are high enough and the intentions bad enough, it can threaten democracy, Brown says. After months of talking about a revolution on Twitter, supporters of former President Donald Trump converged on the U.S. Capitol to “stop” the certification of the election on Jan. 6, 2021. While many came armed and ready for what stopping government action entailed—attacking police officers, vandalizing the building, and seeking out government officials—others seemed unaware of the seriousness. They went from tweeting “Stop the steal” to—phone in hand—live-streaming an attempted coup by the world’s most dangerous flash mob

“The problem was, this wasn’t Twitter,” Brown says. “This was the real Capitol building. This was really the United States government. You are actually going to face sanctions for engaging in this behavior.”

EVERYONE IS ENTITLED TO MY OPINION

In early September 2022, a Facebook account called tofunnyfortv posted a video of a construction worker laying a brick. The video is 12 seconds long and wholly unremarkable: The worker spreads concrete on a single brick and places it on a wall. That’s it.

Even though the video is mundane, it elicited an impassioned response: “Why you need gloves laying brick [sic] what did you do have a manicure,” says one. “Think you could go any slower?,” asks another. “Not impressed,” “I just don’t see how your [sic] staying in business.” And so on.

Oddly, this situation isn’t unique. Check Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram videos of people completing banal tasks, and you’ll see similar conversations. A person lifting weights? “Your form is terrible.” A person driving a car? “You’re going to wreck your transmission.” Cooking a steak? “Ugh, I bet the middle is raw.”

The more time we spend online, the more our brain becomes accustomed to cruelty and lowered inhibitions. So when you enter the real world and see someone behaving in a way you don’t approve of, you might be more inclined to voice your displeasure.

Voicing opinions on the internet isn’t new, but traditionally there is some expectation to listen as well as to talk. During the pandemic there was a shift, or at least an acceleration in change, that prioritized talking over listening.

Robinson wonders if the rise in one-sided opinion-giving might be a result of conditioning from our devices. User-driven content pushes us to foreground our own points of view, constantly asking us to evaluate and comment on content or rate the experience of an app. When we do this for five or six hours a day—the average time an American spends on their phone—it can contribute to normalizing expectations to engage.

When this expectation become widespread in our daily lives, we can lose our sense of balance.

“It can create a growing sense that ‘my voice really matters’ without a sense of the value of listening to others’ voices as well,” Robinson says. “We want everything to be frictionless, but we want everyone else to put up with our friction.”

TikTok was again a game changer in this space. Not only did the “For You” option turn scrolling into an endless supply of content you didn’t know you needed, but TikTok turned commentary into content like never before. Through the stitch, duet, and green screen functions, users are encouraged to make reaction videos all within the app, regardless of whether they are qualified to do so.

“Increasingly, we are invited to proclaim ourselves as experts,” Robinson says. “It is leading us to assume there is implicit value in voicing opinions even in areas where we may have no expertise or background knowledge.”

Worse yet, the online world can take away the very thing that may buffer our reactions: the humanity of others. Lam says when facial expressions and tone of voice are absent, the hardwired reciprocity circuit in the brain isn’t activated and we’re capable of extreme cruelty. “We forget the other person is human,” Lam says.

And, despite America’s obsession with cancel culture, there is a general lack of consequences online that can lead to lowered inhibitions. Unlike centuries ago when alienating yourself from your village could result in starvation or exposure, if a user runs afoul in an online community, they can simply hop into another, which lowers the incentive to regulate our behavior. Through likes and engagement, people are encouraged to share extreme opinions.

The more time we spend online, the more our brain becomes accustomed to cruelty and lowered inhibitions. So when you enter the real world and see someone behaving in a way you don’t approve of, you might be more inclined to voice your displeasure.

“Sometimes the groove we form online is so deep and so wide it becomes the path of least resistance,” Lam says.

GREATLY MIXED EXPECTATIONS

For the past two years, Brown has taught Dating in the Digital Age at Santa Clara. The class isn’t a how-to for dating, but it ends up serving that purpose for young people learning about online communication.

The idea for the class came, in part, from early in the pandemic when Brown’s husband would tell stories of younger coworkers complaining about online dating. Brown noticed the complaints weren’t the typical squabbles but foundational issues of communication. One story in particular involved a coworker who was upset when a promising online conversation fizzled out. “My husband said, ‘Did you ask them on a date?’” Brown recalls. Nope, they never thought to move it out of the DMs. “Then a few days later they’d come back and say, ‘Oh, I have a date next week.’”

It’s easy to laugh at the naivety of youth, but that would be missing the bigger point. Since 2013, the internet is the No. 1 way couples meet and during the pandemic, almost all dating went online. That means that not only did today’s young people spend two formative years online, but they’re the first generation where online communication is almost always baked into their love stories. Even more, they have to do it alone as older generations who might once have offered advice didn’t date online, so they couldn’t. That’s where Brown comes in.

“I want students to realize the internet has irreversibly changed 21st-century relationships,” Brown says. “I hope this helps them examine how corporations behind this technology affect human connection and relationships.”

Perhaps the biggest theme Brown tackles in her class is how online communication influences expectations and how that impacts dating. For example, studies show men are three times as likely to swipe right—or approve a potential partner—as women.

“That feeds a lot of the frustration because it gives a perception of rejection that doesn’t actually exist,” Brown says. “In reality, the people you’re swiping on aren’t using the same practice.”

The gendered nature of online communities is extremely impactful on dating norms. The same ideological communities that led to the Jan. 6 insurrection are peddling toxic dating tips.

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Women are fed romantic narratives by influencers painting a fictional picture of their relationship. Conversely, men learn from pickup artists who, thanks to the echo chamber, are viewed as gods instead of misogynists. And this isn’t just a recipe for a bad date. When a man is coached to expect sex when he pays for a date, for example, young women who don’t comply might be subject to sexual assault.

What’s encouraging for Brown is that young people have the power to make technology work for them instead of against them. In the final class project, students build their own dating app that considers the ramifications of technology.

“These recommendations represent their grasp of possible ways to harness technology to foster close interactions,” Brown says.

RECLAIMING YOURSPACE

In the early days of the internet, digital technology was billed as the great equalizer. Tech has evolved since then, Robinson notes, and still has extraordinary potential for societal benefit as long as we mitigate potential harms, particularly to the most vulnerable.

“When used in the right ways, digital technologies offer opportunities to have a more inclusionary society,” Robinson says. “We have to remind ourselves to be more self-reflexive and set our own boundaries rather than relying on tech companies to do it for us.”

[Digital technology and communication] still has extraordinary potential for societal benefit as long as we mitigate potential harms, particularly to the most vulnerable.

So how do we fix it? Learn about the apps you use and consider how they make you think and feel. Is it healthy to use the same device to apply for a job, argue about politics, and find a future spouse? Probably not.

Brown says using the marketplace to your benefit is the key. Many view “the algorithm” as the malevolent hand of tech companies; while it can be, an algorithm is an equation that reacts to the data we give it. Earlier this year, Twitter and Facebook adopted functions mimicking “For You,” hoping to capitalize on TikTok’s popularity.

But most people don’t come to Twitter or Facebook for a TikTok experience, and those functions haven’t taken off. Brown doesn’t think social media applications can continue to ignore users’ needs.

“A lot of people are disconnecting from certain applications because of how it affects their mental health and real-world relationships,” Brown says. “People have to figure out a strategy to reclaim themselves over these mediums. It’ll be a long time before we see it, but I think it will happen.”

Brown also challenges experts like herself to educate others about social media. The only time Brown has gone viral was tweeting about people using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter to post a black square in support in the summer of 2020. While this was well-intentioned, Brown explained, it clogged the feed of people using the hashtag for actually useful information.

“That made me realize people are not thinking about their actions on social media,” Brown says. “We have to start making TikToks; we have to start making memes; we have to start having Twitter threads. People want to know this information, but we have kept it in the ivory tower for so long. We have to meet them halfway.”

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