The Internet loves cats! That’s a given. But do you know what else “The Internet loves,” according to some recent headlines? Bacon, Joe Biden, spine-chilling Russian daredevil pics, making penguin sweaters, lists, bunnies eating fruit, videos of natural disasters, and hamster butts. Earlier this year, The Internet went nuts for Obama’s Mad Men reference in the State of the Union.
It’s not all love online, of course. The Internet is not pleased that Landon Donovan was left off the World Cup roster, for instance. Some might even say The Internet is mad right now—about everything. The Internet hates the Comcast–Time Warner cable merger, rich people, and Chris Brown. Recently, The Internet was disappointed that Malala Yousafzai didn’t win the Nobel Peace Prize and furious with Fox over the cancelation of Enlisted. Actually, in the latter instance, The Internet freaked out. And a few years ago, The Internet threw a righteous hissy fit about copyright and pie.
While The Internet was loving and hating all these things, and freaking out about TV shows, we’ve all taken to chirping at the office, or with friends on social media, about what “The Internet is saying” on any given day. When a famous person does something unexpected or embarrassing, we tweet or Gchat that “The Internet is going to lose its mind.” And in those cases when a tough-luck story goes viral and people around the world work together to help someone deserving of assistance, we say The Internet “did the right thing,” or “came through in a big way.”
But how can a nonliving thing “that connects computer networks and organizational computer facilities around the world” go nuts over something, or hate Chris Brown, or do the right thing? How can a system of interrelated computer networks love hamster butts? And why are we all using language to breathe life into some inanimate entity we use to play fantasy baseball and watch llamas prance around?
Our tendency to assign human qualities to the Internet—be it via news headlines, Twitter proclamations, or in-person lunchroom rants—is, of course, an example of what psychologists refer to as anthropomorphizing. We also do this with pets, hurricanes, cars, tech gadgets, and tons of other things, often without knowing it. “We humanize the stock market, for instance,” says Adam Waytz, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management who has written extensively on why we anthropomorphize. “We talk about the Dow Jones climbing to a certain point. Economists will anthropomorphize the free market in general, and will consider the mind of the market or ask how the market is going to respond to something. Complex systems we like to anthropomorphize because thinking of them as humanlike seems to simplify them.”
Because the Internet is highly complex, it’s no surprise that we resort to anthropomorphizing it, rather than digging deeper into how and why things happen as they do online. When we say “The Internet loves making penguin sweaters,” or “The Internet came up big for that bullied bus driver,” sometimes we’re just editing down a complex series of events or interactions that played out online, and talking about the sum total of those events in a way that people will best and most quickly understand. Rather than getting into precisely how and why a penguin-sweater-making craze may have taken hold with some subset of the online world, we use the anthropomorphizing shorthand and don’t really worry about trying to understand it more thoroughly.
But there are other reasons we do this. We also humanize things to create an emotional bond with them. “We have this inherent need to belong, connect, and affiliate,” Waytz says, adding that the main reason we anthropomorphize pets is because they offer us the potential for friendship. Not surprisingly, the more time we spend alone, the more likely we are to partake in such endeavors. “When people’s connections with humans are lacking,” Waytz says, “they will turn to nonhumans, and treat them as humanlike affiliates.” In that sense, anthropomorphizing the Internet often involves a social component. “People conflate the Internet with social connection. I think that some people understand that the Internet is a means by which you can attain social connection, but I think some people don’t distinguish between the Internet as a vessel and the Internet as a friend in itself.”
None of this is to suggest that we’ve all become basement-dwelling, antisocial simpletons who have taken to humanizing the Internet because we’ve lost the capacity to distinguish living human beings from machines, or that our current anthropomorphic tendencies are unprecedented. Our parents and grandparents often resorted to humanizing terms when noting that the newspaper or TV “said” this or that. More generally, according to Josh Roiland, a visiting professor in the University of Notre Dame’s Department of American Studies who specializes in the history of news media, we’ve been giving human qualities to “The Media” since at least the middle of the 20th century. Phrases such as “The Media said X” or “The Media went nuts over Y” have long provided a convenient shorthand and functioned much the way we currently use “The Internet.” Suggesting that the Internet is of one mind about something neglects the existence of dissenting voices online—and past and present anthropomorphizing of the media, Roiland says, often “conflates the partisan rants on various evening cable news channels with the day-to-day professionalism and objectivity exalted in newsrooms across America.”
In other words, when we talk about giant, multidimensional information delivery systems this way, we squeeze out divergent perspectives: One anthropomorphized entity has acted in a very specific way, we declare, and that’s that.