Anxiety and the Internet

Anxiety is a topic that has been mediated on since time immemorial. Kierkagaard argued that it was a manifestation of man’s “dizziness with freedom”, man stands on the edge of a cliff, he can jump or he can stay where he is. In the television series Cracker, Dr Edward “Fitz” Fitzgerald played by Robbie Coltrane, in attempting to talk a man down from a suicidal leap off a tenement block, surmises this position, “man isn’t really afraid of heights, he’s afraid of what he might do”. Nietzsche dealt with the problem in another way. He argued that anxiety, or feelings of guilt, were essentially because unrealised aims became moralised. Christianity makes the intentions of an agent sinful, which in other historical epochs might have been called a virtue. Rather than interpreting guilt as an unrealised intention, the priestly caste shows the “doers” the cause of suffering “in themselves, in some guilt, in a piece of the past, they must understand their suffering as a punishment”. With Darwin, and the growth in the 20/21st century of evolutionary biology new theses emerged. Anxiety, it is argued, rather than being an existential crisis, is in fact a defence mechanism from our evolutionary past. The man who was not afraid, was a man who would not survive.

The trouble is that this mechanism has been carried into civilisation, where the possibility of being eaten by an animal is minimal. Anxiety in the 21st century, therefore, flowers in social situations. Issues of self-esteem, self-consciousness and public perception come into play. Indeed, these can inadvertently be liberating. Awareness of self, can enable self-mastery. However, they can also be stultifying, leading to endless self-questioning, uncertainty and debilitating unease. The Internet can magnify these problems. As Peter Mannion MP in The Thick of It puts it, “It’s like opening your door to a room where everyone tells you how shit you are”. The untimely death of Hannah Smith, a 14 year girl, is a macabre example of the potentialities of internet. It shows how the ubiquitous experiences of anxiety, intermingled with the want of social acceptance, can lead to frightening conclusions. Moreover, it holds a mirror up to the disintegration of social relations in the 21st century.

In an excellent series of mini-productions for the English National Opera, the novelist Will Self mediates on the affects of Internet in Western society. In a video entitled ‘The Internet is a false friend’ Self proposes that the Internet, though supposing to enhance sociality and connectivity, actually creates new forms of ennui and alienation. He gives the example of Amazon. A situation where I would have to get up, put some pants on, stroll to a book shop, talk to an assistant, pick a book from the shelf, bring it to the register, who may help me in the logistics of this, have awkward small talk, pay, say thank you, walk out the shop, hold the door for a person, nod courteously (swear under your breath), go home, or carry on consuming, is reduced to a couple of clicks. Indeed, Amazon collates the recommendations of an assistant into an algorithm, which produces recommendations of its own; “you may also like this”.

Self argues that this creates the illusion of an actual social relation. If it were a true friend Amazon would really say, “listen buddy you’ve been searching our site for 4 hours now, shouldn’t you really get some air”. The point is that the Internet profoundly alters, though surreptitiously, the way we interact with one another. Similarly, Facebook, Twitter, Ask F.M present themselves as vehicles for socialising. They play on that omnipresent human need; affection. When the Internet mediates a relationship, anyone can be your friend. It doesn’t take time, there is not the slow development of trust- of ‘befriending’- that occurs in the real world. A couple of clicks and I could be talking to someone from Spain, Nigeria, Australia. The dynamic at play here is totally distinct from any real life meeting. Moreover, though it seems as though there is a real relationship building, and in some cases this may be the case, it is not a direct relationship. It is mediated by the website. What Facebook, Twitter and Ask FM all have in common is that the friendships established on their sites are public. A status, a wall-post, a tweet, a question. More than that, the process becomes ‘commoditised’. How many likes do I have? How many people are following me? What these sites are doing is holding match to the foibles of humanity. Do people like me? Am I popular? In the process, rather than assessing friendships on the character of ‘disinterest’- “as an end in itself”- cyber-friendships are judged solely in the value of them on the website.

This inevitably has led to the creation of the ‘avatar’. Ask F.M has anonymous questioning, trolls stalk the networks of Twitter, and Facebook pedophiles pretend to be 13 year old boys. People exclaim, “Why is there a policy against these clandestine operations?” The truth is even if there were policies to prevent this behaviour, they wouldn’t achieve anything. Real friendship are built on trust and mutual responsibilities, when we live in cyber-world we live by proxy, meaning we assume a virtualised self that does not adhere to the strictures of the real world.

The point of all these sites is to magnify social relations, what they have succeeded in doing is putting anxiety under the microscope. The tragedy of Hannah Smith was its inevitability. These types of incidents are the logical conclusion when people interact with one another in the virtual world. When I spoke of Kierkegaard’s “dizziness with freedom” it was to show that this type of feeling can only occur in active engagement with the world. When there is no cliff, no precipice to rally our thoughts, we enter an abyss where all is possible. Hannah Smith entered cyber-space because she was having the completely normal experiences of teenage angst. These feelings were formed in the real world. The filth that she encountered came from the virtual world, where there is no conception of anxiety, fear or self-reproach. The guilt and suffering that Nietzsche despised would not apply to the perpetrators. To suffer for an intention, as you do with guilt, requires an object in the real world. These are the twin-poles of anxiety on the Internet; the want for companionship and affection and the unbridled freedom that the cyber-world allows. They met each other and produced death.