How Do You Cope With Internet-Induced Opinion Fatigue?

Jess Zimmerman published a very good article today about opinion fatigue, or the exhaustion that comes from feeling like you constantly have to participate in the deluge of opinions-expressed-online, whether or not you have any background or expertise on the topic at hand. Or, as Zimmerman puts it:

“It’s tiring to lug around your armor of spurious competence. And it’s equally exhausting to weather a swarm of weigh-ins from everyone and his brother (you guys don’t need me to tell you this is an especial behavior of men, right?), or stare down another slog through the hot-take-backlash-counterintuitive-take-counterintuitive-take-backlash-wet-blanket-hoax-accusation opinion cycle. Everyone is burned out by thinking something about everything. Everyone is even more burned out by everyone else thinking something about everything.”

Oh, facts. I wrote something about this in regards to comment sections on my fitfully-updated personal blog a while ago. That post stirred up some mild controversy when I posted a response to Women Against Feminism on my blog, because people who hated me really, really wanted to tell me so via a comments section, but I do not allow comments on my blog. They said I was violating their first amendment rights and was a censorial fascist, which demonstrates a serious lack of understanding of the first amendment, censorship, and fascism, but anyway.

The reason I don’t like comment sections — specifically on small personal blogs like mine, that are geared toward sharing enthusiasms and expertise, not toward creating a community that has regular discussions — is exactly this “spurious competence” Zimmerman talks about. Too often, the ability to share opinions spins into a delusion that a commenter has actual authority on a subject. And when that commenter is on a personal blog, that means that they believe they have authority on the blog’s author and his or her personal character and moral worth. For the author, that assumed, spurious authority is at least irritating and is sometimes downright frightening. And it’s always, always unnecessary. There is no reason to let someone speculate on your character or moral worth or who you are or how your life works on a platform that you pay for.

I quoted artist and art theorist Donald Judd:

“The majority of the society, as the descendants of peasants, brand new people who remember little, has had to be educated. There were not enough educated people to do this; the group was originally very small. As they taught their much more numerous successors, the level couldn’t be maintained, until finally only bare information was taught, if science, and academic nonsense, if the arts… The opposition can’t be an institution but must be lots of diverse and educated people arguing and objecting. These people must have real knowledge and judgment and they must have an influence upon the less educated majority.”

(From “…Not About Masterpieces But About Why There Are So Few of Them,” Art in America, September, 1984.)

His point was that — as Zimmerman argues — most of us know very little about most things. (Calling the majority “peasants” is, I guess, historically accurate, but maybe a really poor choice of words in terms of not sounding spectacularly elitist.) In order for more of us to know more about more things, we have to listen to people who have expertise on a subject rather than speculate and talk without consulting experts first, and we have to listen to experts having discussions with each other, and we have to ask those experts questions. Blogging and social media have made experts and their expertise more accessible and yet, in the ocean of online opinions, harder to find and learn from. Add on to that the fact that everyone having so many platforms on which they can express their opinions — educated or not — gives us all the feeling that we’re experts and people should listen to us, whether or not that feeling is earned.

As a caveat: Of course I’m guilty of that. I’m trying to get better about it. Zimmerman proposes the following solution:

“We need a way to make uncertainty not only acceptable, but viral. The shruggie emoticon (¯\_(ツ)_/¯) was a start but, like anything left in the internet too long, it’s gotten a bit tainted with smug. Instead of profound existential indifference, the current use is more like “well, you’re dumb, but la di da.” But there have to be other ways to hack into social media’s ability to amplify ideas. An International Dunno Day, based on New Yorker writer’s Jon Lee Anderson’s first-ever tweet? #DunnoAllMen? (Nobody needs “dunno” more than men on Twitter.) A month-long unconsciousness-raising effort called Dunnovember?”

In terms of my own job, which dictates that I write about things that are going on, whether or not I have expertise on those things, I’ve tried to implement a solution something like that. When presented with a thing on which I should have an opinion but have little to no expertise, I’m trying not to knee-jerk and jump to a conclusion, but rather to write with a voice that says, “OK, I guess that’s how the world is! Strange, that.” Explain whatever knowledge I have of the topic at hand and shrug at the things I don’t know. It’s gone pretty well — I get e-mails from experts, sometimes, who are happy to respectfully fill in the gaps of my understanding, and fewer people are contacting me, on the other hand, to tell me what an asshole I am for giving a spurious, uneducated opinion on something.

Which is another solution: We could all be gentler and kinder when we’re sharing our actual expertise, too. Correcting someone by telling them they’re an idiot is usually going to end with them defending and entrenching their belief in the bad information on which they’re basing their opinions. It’s a lose-lose.

How do you cope with opinion fatigue? Share, please, and maybe we can all work toward a solution together. (Despite the fact that I hate comments on my personal blog, I love the sense of community and the discussions that happen here.)

[The Guardian]

[Flare and Fade]

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