Emotions Invented by the internet

I read with some interest a recent blog detailing 5 emotions invented by the internet (on a blog by Leigh Alexander – mentioned here in a Telegraph technology blog. You can click on a link to the original piece – but do be warned, some readers might not like some of the language). Of course it doesn’t really mean that there are new emotions – just that the internet has brought about a whole host of new situations which can trigger uncomfortable, unpleasant or even sometimes powerful or difficult emotions. 
In some ways this makes a lot of sense – the complexity of our social environment is responsible for many of our normal day to day emotions in normal circumstances. Adding the internet into the mix just means that there are even more social interactions – and the non verbal nature of them does make them more tricky. Part of the function of emotions is to do with communication – and human beings’ intense, basic need to connect with other people. Typing your conversation over the internet, or even onto your mobile phone as a text message, removes a lot of the normal visual cues we might use in face to face conversation. So you can’t, in an IM or texted conversation, check someone’s facial expression to see how they responded to your last comment. You can’t rely on them picking up your own signals to realise exactly what you meant by your last comment – or how you meant it. Conversational tools like irony and sarcasm are fraught with potential danger, and anyone who uses these kinds of communication will have stories of how it has sometimes gone wrong. And don’t even get me started on the horrors of predictive text – just this week my iphone changed a crucial letter in the word ‘got’ meaning that I unwittingly sent a colleague a rather more harsh email than I intended!!
What I think is particularly interesting is how these new forms of communication can play into the natural weaknesses we often have, which can then trigger or grow emotions and cause them to become problematic.  Some unhelpful patterns of thinking act like kindling to the flame of emotion and can fan it up into emotional bonfires with little or no need for any basis in reality. The uncertainty of non verbal conversations like texting or IMing makes us much more prone to these kind of thoughts. Why, for example, did my friend suddenly stop responding in the middle of that texted conversation? Did she just get another call, move away from her phone, get distracted by her children/husband etc, or was it something more worrying. Did my last text cause her offence? Did she not get the joke I sent her before? Have I been boring her all along? It’s all too easy to get carried away on this deluge of anxious thoughts and play out whole emotional dramas without ever actually confirming whether any of this is true. We’ve all got to that slightly sweaty anxious stage, and been utterly relieved to hear the next message ping in and allay our fears!
Of course the detached nature of these conversations can also be helpful. Many people find it easier to communicate in this way, and that it enables new kinds of friendships to develop. As a typical introvert I love text messages – they enable me to communicate with friends in a way which works perfectly for me. My much less introverted husband often asks, irritated, why I didn’t just phone someone, often after the 9th or 10th text bounces its way between us. But texting means we can communicate without necessarily interrupting someone – we can throw thoughts or best wishes into their lives without forcing them to make space for us – or forcing ourselves to make space for them! After a long day juggling work and family I’m not really in the right place for a long phone conversation. But I do like to connect with my friends, and so it’s pretty unusual for an evening to go by without me texting a few people to find out how their day was. Texting means I can do this whilst still getting on with my evening – and so can they! (thinking about it, perhaps that is why these conversations are so often punctuated by long inexplicable silences!). 
Of course, forums, charities and support groups have also harnessed the power of these non verbal communications, and many people have found that they can talk, and access help and support, in this way when to do so face to face would be too hard. Sometimes being anonymous or invisible can be an essential part of allowing yourself to communicate. Social network sites allow people to utterly control the image of themselves they put across, and this can help some people to feel more confident than they usually would in starting and building new friendships. Of course at the same time this opportunity to control what people think of you can leave you prone to feeling even more paranoid -think about it, if you could edit or re-word every sentence you spoke in a conversation how many do you think you would you change?  
For some people social networking and internet sites are a real lifeline. Anyone who has seen the excellent film ‘The Social Network’ (and if you haven’t I would recommend it!) will remember its depiction of Mark Zuckerberg, the brilliant student who invented facebook as a way for him to interact socially in a way he could not do in the ‘outside’ world. Some research suggests that people who use social networking sites like facebook are more likely to struggle with issues like low self esteem, and that they enable them to form relationships that they would otherwise have never been able to experience, but the question is, does this help them build on their self esteem, or can it actually make things worse, and make the ‘real world’ even harder to access? 
Whatever you think about the new kinds of communication being ushered in by the internet age, they are here to stay. So we are going to have to get used to them – and the possible emotional perils they might bring. Perhaps it is even more important in this day of instant messaging, to teach skills of challenging and rationalising those kindling thoughts, to help us to gain control of the emotions they might trigger. Because as usual, the vast majority of us are not going to be significantly affected by them – they might simply become a minor annoyance and an acceptable side effect of communicating in that way. But for some who are more vulnerable they might become a very real problem. Working in schools as I do I see a lot of emotional anguish triggered by postings on the internet. Influential speakers such as Rob Parsons recount cases where significant distress has been caused by responses on websites, and cases have even been documented in the press of people who have attempted suicide following responses – or lack of responses – to a post they have made on the internet.
Ephesians 6 talks about the ‘flaming arrows’ which the evil one sometimes fires at us – and challenges us to take up the shield of faith against them. Too often our own thoughts can become flaming arrows, which chip away gradually at our confidence and self belief, and nudge us to believe things about ourselves which simply are not true. Where the internet offers even more opportunities for those arrows to be fired, we need to become extra good at defending ourselves and the vulnerable people we support. As a church which supports a lot of vulnerable people, we feel pretty strongly about this and we’re just starting an exercise to put together some suggestions for people about how to use the internet and particularly social networking sites like facebook. We’re aware of how helpful they can be – but we also want to try to help people to protect themselves.    
What do you think? Do you think that communicating over the internet is a blessing or a curse? What emotions do you find triggered by the internet? Do you love IMing, or hate it? Do you find all this new internet speak intensely irritating and wonder what I even mean by IMing?! (Intstant Messaging, by the way!). Does facebook offer you the chance to live life in a fuller way – or keep you from the real world? Tell us what you think on our forum! 


Kate Middleton, 03/02/2011
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