The new soma: How viral fluff took over the Internet

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In 1985, Neil Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death. In it he argued that we were living not in a dystopic Orwellian society, but, rather in the Brave New World of Aldous Huxley. Back then Postman viewed television as the pervasive narcotic, soma, that lulled the populace into submission. In the past few months I've come to believe soma has a new name: viral fluff.

Social media has always had its share of noise to signal -- cats farting the Macarena on a skateboard, a dopey kid on his way home from the dentist, etc. But lately it feels like the social web has gotten markedly stupider, tackier and has had its bullshit detector smashed to atoms.

How else can you explain intelligent men and women uploading inspirational posters that wouldn't be out of place in a 12-year-old girl's bedroom from 1975? Or, explain why rational humans would fall, over and over, for faked "flash mobs," a Kimmel-crafted twerk failure or asshats on a plane message-exchange fabrications.

Last week a Facebook friend posted a link to a Gizmodo story about what amounted to a perpetual motion machine. The same week links appeared in my feeds about a student who had been kicked out of school for casting a spell on a teacher. The story was from 2000.

Maybe it's because the creation and discovery of viral videos, photos, etc. used to be a kind of grassroots, diffuse activity. Now sites like mashable.com, break.com, upworthy.com, buzzfeed.com and the Huffington Post make it possible to be spoonfed all manner of semi-amusing nonsense: heartwarming pet antics, plucky youth triumph, surprise reunions, side-boob celeb shots and animated gifs of painful parkour flubs.

Or maybe it's because headline writers have stumbled upon the new clickbait headlines that contain the golden phrases like "what she did next will reduce you to tears," "proctologists hate him," "the one thing you need to do to reduce belly fat," "here are 14 things you need to hear now" or "I never knew doctors were lying to me until I listened to what she had to say."

Whatever the reason, we not only have the new soma, we're the pushers.

Late last December I did a major cull of my Facebook friends list because I got tired of all this nonsense in the social media stream. But even now, with a well-honed list of friends, there are days when I wonder what two-by-four collectively smacked the Internet in the frontal lobe.

And what is most disturbing is that mainstream media outlets, who look jealously at the viral fluff upstarts, are aping the values, curation of nonsense and the huckster headlines.

As Luke O'Neil pointed out in a recent Esquire post, "The Year We Broke the Internet," the media complicity creates a virtuous circle of viral inbreeding:

"Readers are gullible, the media is feckless, garbage is circulated around, and everyone goes to bed happy and fed."

So, not only is there no downside for social media mavens who regurgitate tripe, there's no real incentive for media outlets to check it or just ignore it -- and every reason to join the fun.

I want to believe this is a passing fad, that the social web right now is like a notional aunt who just got email and is spamming relatives with phony virus notices and PowerPoints of nature's grandeur.

But as a wise friend of mine said, "I predict it will get worse and worse."

So, maybe I'm as bad as everyone else, gullibly buying and spreading a story that's just too good to be true.

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Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Dave Shea/flickr

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