I used to have a makeshift sign on the wall next to my computer which read "It's Only The Internet". It provided me with a useful reminder that websites, blogs, emails and social media posts weren't specifically designed to provoke my anger, weren't deserving of my ire and weren't worth getting involved with. Positioned just in my eyeline, it saved me from pointless participation in countless online arguments and plenty of wasted venting.
It's not there any more; I took it down a few years ago because I thought I'd learned my lesson. I know that I bite my tongue more than I used to, I think a lot more and leave plenty of emails and tweets unsent. But I'm far from immune from the temptation to vent, and something I read this week in The Wall Street Journal about digital fury made me consider sticking the sign back up.
In one of my first writing jobs, I'd arrive at the office consumed with irritation about something or other, and my editor would tell me not to waste it on him and get it published online instead. The internet gave us all a glorious opportunity to rant in public, and we seized it. Sweary take-downs of every aspect of modern life became commonplace, and you still see plenty of them today – the Twitter account @getinthesea being a notable recent example.
But a misconception persists that venting somehow helps us, despite the WSJ article underlining the fact that fury merely breeds fury. It quotes Brad Buchanan, a professor of communications and psychology at Ohio State University who has done many studies into the effects of venting; he concludes that "letting it all out" may be easy, but it's the opposite of therapeutic – and it can often comes back to haunt us.
A timely example: this week the Chief Security Officer of US computer firm Oracle penned a furious blog post telling customers to stop looking for security flaws in its software ("Please Stop It Already," she wailed.) Those pesky customers, however, have helped the company find and patch around 10 per cent of said flaws. It was disproportionately furious, it has since been deleted and there's a good chance she'll now be thinking, "Why did I do that?"
Why indeed? We frequently feel bouts of anger that seem to be provoked by things we read concerning, I dunno, exorbitant house prices or cafés that only sell cereal. But the theory that our unconscious powers our conscious mind would indicate that the reasons for us hammering angrily on our keyboards lie a lot deeper. Sometimes, technology can help us out; GMail's "Undo Send", a helpful feature rolled out a couple of months ago, gives us up to 30 seconds to change our mind about sending acidic invective to our line manager. But mostly it's up to us to rein ourselves in.
Venting can be useful if it's well-directed, but the internet isn't renowned for its precision targeting. Our furious thoughts drift around, coming to the attention of hundreds or thousands of people who have no interest in understanding us. In our acute state of fury, we're don't have the remotest investment in understanding their angry replies. And so we cook up this extraordinary environment where tempers are artificially heightened, views are wildly distorted and we constantly encounter powerful emotions that simply aren't real. Collectively, we're failing to step away from the internet. It might be time to put that sign back up.
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