the kicker

The media’s Internet infatuation

Much of the coverage makes claims "that are grand, outlandish, and ultimately unverifiable"
August 15, 2012

The New York Times finds the Internet, and the business and culture surrounding it, endlessly fascinating. When Marissa Mayer was named CEO of Yahoo last month, the paper devoted more than a dozen pieces to the event, pondering everything from the ramifications of her pregnancy to the depth of the challenges she faces. “Does Facebook Turn People Into Narcissists?” Tara Parker-Pope asked in a Sunday Magazine piece. (No, she reported—narcissists prefer Twitter.) In “Being Addicted to Longing for Something,” Carina Chocano (also in the mag) reported on how everyone she knows goes to digital “mood boards” on Pinterest or Tumblr to escape, perk up, calm down, feel something, distract themselves, and “modulate pleasure and arousal.” Last month, the Times gave front-page treatment to a new reality series about Silicon Valley and the pained reaction of local residents.

But the Times is hardly alone in its Internet fixation. In publications both online and off, business reporters obsessively parse the business strategies and personnel moves of Google and Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Lifestyle reporters breathlessly chronicle the fortunes, mansions, and attire of the digerati. And, perhaps most troubling, the burgeoning corps of human-behavior reporters eagerly weigh the impact of the online world on every aspect of our psyches, making claims that are grand, outlandish, and ultimately unverifiable.

“Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” The Atlantic inquired on its May cover. Inside, Stephen Marche filled seven pages with McLuhanesque meditations on loneliness and Facebook’s part in spreading it: At a time of “instant and absolute communication, unbounded by limits of time or space,” we “have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier”; “Across the Western world, physicians and nurses have begun to speak openly of an epidemic of loneliness”; “The question of the future is this: Is Facebook part of the separating or the congregating; is it a huddling-together for warmth or a shuffling-away in pain?”; “The history of our use of technology is a history of isolation desired and achieved.” The real danger with Facebook, Marche (finally) concluded,

is not that it allows us to isolate ourselves, but that by mixing our appetite for isolation with our vanity, it threatens to alter the very nature of solitude.

The thought that Facebook might be altering the very nature of solitude is truly terrifying. But it paled before the message of Newsweek’s July 7 cover, “Is the Internet Making Us Crazy?” Drawing on a potpourri of studies, surveys, and expert interviews, Tony Dokoupil argued that the Internet “may be making us not just dumber or lonelier but more depressed, even outright psychotic.” According to one expert, the Web, by fostering obsessions and dependence, “encourages—and even promotes—insanity.” The brains of Internet addicts, it turns out, “look like the brains of drug and alcohol addicts. And don’t kid yourself [who would!]: the gap between an `Internet addict’ and John Q. Public is thin to nonexistent.” As a result, “normal people are breaking down in sad and seemingly new ways.”

These articles typify much of the current writing about the Internet. They offer sweeping speculations about the supposed effects of the wired world on human behavior and social relations, with a patina of authority lent by selective citations from the vast reams of data produced by the burgeoning corps of digital psychologists, computer behavioralists, and loneliness experts. Reading these pieces, the question I came away with was not whether Facebook is making us lonely or whether the Internet is making us crazy but whether the Web is making journalists stupid.

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In some cases, the press’s Internet absorption can seriously warp our perception of important events. A good example is the Arab Spring. From the Western coverage, one would have thought that the Internet was the main cause of the Mideast uprisings. On a recent Fresh Air, Terry Gross, interviewing Times Cairo Bureau Chief David Kirkpatrick, casually mentioned “the Facebook revolution.”

“I should tell you,” Kirkpatrick quickly put in, “I hate this Facebook revolution stuff.” Asked why, he said that “you can sit at your computer all day long and you’re never going to get anything done in terms of bringing down a government.” What caused the change in the Mideast, he said, was people going into the streets. While Facebook and Twitter are an advance over the old tools of putting up a flier or passing out a pamphlet, he said, “to put the technology in the forefront and not the individuals really misses the point.” Such labeling is unpopular in the Mideast, Kirkpatrick added, because it’s seen as an attempt to put a “Western brand name” on the event.

In the United States, meanwhile, the press, while writing endlessly about the Internet, has failed to examine some important questions about it. Much has been said about the democratizing effect of the Web, but how real is that effect? Has the Web delivered on its promise to empower ordinary citizens and give a voice to those who don’t own a printing press? It hardly seems so. It’s been roughly 20 years since the Web began to emerge as a significant presence in America, and over that period the country has grown much more unequal, with the top sliver growing vastly richer while the middle class has struggled. Is there a relationship between these phenomena? Has the Internet contributed to the increase in inequality? Perhaps it’s too early to make a definitive judgment, but at the very least the Internet has given birth to a new class of barons whose fortunes equal or exceed those of the traditional Wall Street variety. As the career of Steve Jobs showed, however, journalists tend to celebrate these moguls for their savvy and cool rather than examine the enormous wealth they’ve amassed and the political and economic ends to which they put it.

With the poor performance of Facebook’s IPO (the avalanche of coverage of which was another case of journalistic excess), a backlash against Web companies may be developing. If the bubble does burst, however, it seems likely, based on past performance, to produce a new round of personality-driven stories, like the 2,000-word profile The Washington Post recently ran about Facebook “fugitive” Katherine Losse, Mark Zuckerberg’s ghostwriter, who, gradually souring “on the revolution in human relations she witnessed from within,” fled the company for the hip artist colony of Marfa, TX. As one reader commented, “She had some co-workers/friends who were a bunch of jerks, so she quit her job and relocated to another part of the country. Why is this news?”

Michael Massing is a contributing editor to CJR and the author of Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq.