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.
In some instances, of course, that’s great! Who doesn’t love to hear “The Internet just made a child’s dream come true,” or “The Internet prevented an innocent man from going to jail”? Such comments allow us all to feel good about ourselves as Internet users and about humanity more generally. But there’s also a downside to this way of writing and talking. For one thing, it can obscure the specific people and events involved in, say, freeing an innocent man. It takes agency away from those people and hands it to an inanimate and highly abstract entity.
And the ramifications of that problem become more serious when we’re talking about something annoying or awful that we saw online. We probably realize that people on the Internet, and by extension in the world, do some pretty terrible things, but blaming the results of that terribleness on The Internet helps distract us from a sometimes sordid reality where living human beings with names and families are the bad actors.
So when we become frustrated by things we see online, we oftentimes express those frustrations in a way that removes individual humans from the equation. The Internet, we have been known to say, “is awful.” When we read something especially racist or sexist or ignorant, or need to get our work done without distraction, or feel nostalgic for a time when people used computers less, “The Internet is evil.”
Awl co-founder Alex Balk hit on this point earlier in the year with a series of perspicacious tweets. “The Internet is the chair you stub a toe on and curse at,” he wrote. “CHAIR DON’T CARE! It’s an inanimate object! YOU’RE the toe-stubbing schmuck.” After dismantling the logic of blaming some nonhuman entity for self-inflicted injury, Balk rolled through with an all-caps pronouncement for the ages. “THE INTERNET IS PEOPLE,” he wrote. “The problem is people. Everything can be reduced to this one statement. People are awful. Especially you, especially me. Given how terrible we all are it’s a wonder the Internet isn’t so much worse.”
There is much to be taken from that blast of clear thinking. For one thing, it highlights a crucial difference between past anthropomorphizing of the newspaper or the media, and what’s going on when we do the same sort of thing with the Internet. When we referred to “The Media” in this way in the past, we weren’t pointing fingers that should have been directed at ourselves. As Waytz puts it, The Media “was not us. That was someone whose job it was to report what’s going on. What distinguishes the Internet is that it’s not just a place to hear the news of the day. It’s a place where we do connect with people.” We get a large percentage of our “news” from friends via social media, and now more than ever before, everyday people are the ones producing and creating and sharing the stories, videos, and information we ultimately despise. So, when we are apportioning blame for things that upset or anger us online, anthropomorphizing saves us from hating ourselves, and our friends, and other humans by allowing us to fault The Internet for everything that is wrong in the world. If The Internet is to blame, then we don’t have to dig into Balk’s contention that it is the people using the Internet who are in fact awful.
“It’s an interesting hypothesis, that people use this anthropomorphism of the Internet to escape blame themselves or to avoid putting blame on individuals,” says Waytz. “I think that’s probably true. It’s this way of diffusing responsibility.”
In that way, our anthropomorphizing of the Internet is akin to a superpower that enables humans to duck and dodge all mirrors without ever having to fully understand or learn from reflections about topics of real societal import. But as much as we may tell ourselves otherwise, The Internet is not racist, or misogynistic, or homophobic, or violent, or super disgusting, or mean-spirited, or scary, or infatuated with gruesome skateboarding accidents and junk-punch videos. Real, living people are. And that realization may just be too much for The Internet to handle right now.