The Power of Shutting Up in the Internet Age

Every ounce of attention, positive or negative, feeds more power to the content receiving it. That's the power of shutting up: it keeps you from voting for what you despise.
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I was both amused and mortified by a recent blog post -- not on Huffington, mind you -- explaining how to secretly become pregnant while feigning the use of contraceptives. The author (no link provided, for reasons that will become obvious) rambled for paragraph after poorly written paragraph -- intermingling tactics, experience, and rationalization. She finally concluded with a helpful warning for men everywhere: The women in your lives are trying to trick you into fatherhood. A predictable stream of comments followed, most of which offered unflattering assessments of the author, her psychological state, and her writing.

For my part, I discovered the article in my Facebook news feed, posted by a friend along with a mildly outraged comment about the damaging effects of paranoia in relationships. He, of course, was passing along something from his own Facebook feed, which presumably came with similar unflattering commentary. Suffice it to say that between Facebook rants and direct comments, lots of people were talking about how this post was garbage and didn't deserve to be taken seriously. In fact, if it wasn't for all the people complaining about the attention the post was getting, it wouldn't have gotten much at all.

We all know the internet is no discriminator when it comes to value. You can post a video capturing previously unseen oppression and heroism, or one that captures the poorly lit interior of your closet. You can post a photo depicting human kindness under extreme duress, or a blurred shot of your left foot taken by accident while you were intoxicated. And, you can write blog posts of any length, of any quality, and on any topic. It doesn't matter if your thinking is clear or muddled, your research real or fabricated, or your writing articulate or obtuse. You can always post.

The Internet does, however, discriminate based upon attention. Web algorithms from Facebook to Google excel at presenting you with the stuff other people find interesting. Content that gets more hits -- more posts, more eyeballs on it, and more people passing it along -- also gets featured most prominently in news feeds and search results. Content that gets ignored by readers also gets ignored by algorithms. Programmers may lack the technology to duplicate our human minds, but they can certainly keep track of how we're using them. If other people cared, goes the coded logic, you probably will too.

All of this leads to a somewhat counterintuitive conclusion: If you come across content which you find disagreeable, distasteful, or just plain idiotic, it might be best to just... shut up. Don't waste your time firing up your righteous indignation, raking the author over the coals in the comment section, or forwarding message to your friends under the heading of "can you BELIEVE this?!" Just move on. Go to a different post, or a different site, or maybe get off the Internet entirely and do something in real life. Not only do your responses raise your own blood pressure, but in the world of the Internet, those comments are your votes.

The voting metaphor itself, of course, isn't limited to the Internet. In retail, for example, it's often said that you vote with your wallet. You buy the products you find valuable and ignore the others. Widely bought products turn a profit, widely ignored products prove unmarketable, and manufacturers learn what to keep making and what to abandon. This way, it doesn't take long for the garbage to get identified and tossed out.

Of course, when you're shopping, it's fine to commiserate with a friend about your disgust over a certain product. As long as you don't buy it, your vote isn't cast. Things are different on the Internet. Here, every comment, share, and forward is a vote. Every email you open has the potential to alert the sender that it caught your eye. Every click on a blog post casts a vote for it to be displayed to other people. Every ounce of attention, positive or negative, feeds more power to the content receiving it.

That's the power of shutting up: it keeps you from voting for what you despise.

Please don't misunderstand: I'm not saying you shouldn't use the Internet as the fantastically interactive media that it is. When you come across content that you find valuable, or in cases where you wish to participate in a meaningful debate, you should interact profusely. State your case, share the link and join in the conversation. On the other hand, when you come across complete drivel, you should seriously consider withholding your involvement.

What if you feel extremely strongly about the issue? What if the author is coming down against something close to the fiber of your being? Issues like religion, national pride, and the safety of our children come to mind -- perhaps even issues like faking the use of contraception. What should you do -- what should we all do -- when encountering content that crosses the proverbial line?

I suggest a simple approach: First, prepare a scathing email -- to the author, to the editor, to whomever -- in which you articulate your disgust. Get all of your anger out of your system. Just don't send it. Instead, when you're done, save it. Wait a week or two, until you've calmed down, and then return to your angry diatribe with the intent to create a second edition.

In your new revision, convert your email about what you were against into an article about what you support. Instead of writing in opposition to your nemesis, write in favor of your cause; instead of calling the boneheaded author's integrity into question, extol the virtues of those who oppose that person; instead of pointing out flaws in the author's logic, create a flawless argument of your own.

In other words, instead of complaining about the insanity of faux contraception, write about the importance of honesty in relationships.

When you're done, you will have gone from complainer to creator. Take your new creation and find a place to post it, be it Facebook or a blog. Now, sit back and let your supporters -- and your detractors -- cast their votes for you.

Granted, only a precious few articles -- and a precious few topics -- merit this kind of response. For all the other garbage out there, don't be fooled into helping publicize it, and don't let it increase your stress levels. Just let it go quietly by.

As you do, be sure to smile knowingly to yourself as you wield the power of shutting up.

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