The Internet, like your dentist’s assistant, is never kinder than when disaster strikes. On normal days, the kind on which you glide across an afternoon on too much coffee and a midweek buzz of anomie, you might not notice the deep and pervasive treacle of online life. But when a tsunami hits Japan, an earthquake crushes Haiti, or an embassy attack leaves foreign servicemen dead, even the most calloused tweeter goes soft inside, and every laptop turns into a small news service all its own. Sorrow pours down from the loftiest peaks. Help shines through each browser window. At such moments, the web becomes a nurturing and shining place, and every stiff-jawed critic seems to want to send you forward with hugs and a smile.
On October 29, as Hurricane Sandy swept into New York and New Jersey, the web became a news ticker and sound box amplifying public concern. With few people venturing outside and many rubbernecking on reports and footage of the worst, those who broke news became de facto moderators of our anxieties. First came the photographs: the waters of New York Harbor rising up into Battery Park, a lovely Instagram-ized shot of the Hudson breaching its banks. Then came the dire reports: a man killed by a falling tree, the Con Ed plant explosion. Finally, the friendliness arrived: This wasn’t disaster porn but a startling flood of goodwill. In the hours after Sandy made landfall, noted online wits doffed their aloof masks and hung their heads in solidarity; those who seemed insufficiently somber got chastised. The key word of the storm became hunker—a term that nearly oozes honey glaze and cocoa. “Much of the seen-it-all and isn’t-it-dumb seemed to leak out of my Twitter stream,” the media critic David Carr wrote a couple of days later.
For those of us who learned to love the web best as a hostile, predatory, somewhat haunted place, this kindness is startling—but not as startling as it might once have been. These days, life online has become friendly, well mannered, oversweet. Everyone is on his or her very best behavior—and if they’re not, they tend to be quickly iced out of the conversation. The sweet camaraderie that flourished during Sandy isn’t just for terror and crisis anymore; it has become the way the Internet lives now.
And it’s made converts of even the most truculent cases. In mid-October, Perez Hilton, the famously snide online ogler of celebrities, decided to turn over a new leaf, and delivered the message in song. “I resolved I must be kind!” he sang onstage at a 42nd Street theater, the New York Times reported, part of a recent public shift he’s tried to make toward a friendlier, gentler approach to celebrity culture. (It meant a lot to publicists.) Gawker, once considered the reigning champion of snark, has similarly moved away from its claws-out mission and toward more earnest investigative efforts—often with the aim of making the world a better place. Among the site’s most notable stories this fall was the outing and shaming of Reddit’s ViolentAcrez, one of the Internet’s most notorious trolls. (Gawker and Hilton’s site are surely catering to the market in some sense, but the market itself may be changing: For years, it was their meanness, not their generosity, that earned them page views.)
Our relationship to news and public figures isn’t the only thing that’s changed. We are endlessly flattering one another, too—sharing everything we do with everyone we know, and reflexively praising every biographical detail that comes over the transom to us. There is always sunshine to be found on the web, and usually we find it—trading compliments or loading our Twitter feeds with people whose goals, opinions, and politics mirror ours. Campaigns may be mean and cacophonous, but we tend to construct echo chambers for our own parties’ triumphant choruses. What is that noise? It’s the sound of one hundred million backs being slapped, and it’s getting louder.
Ten years ago, the web offered the worldview of a disaffected apparatchik and the perils of a Wild West saloon. Brawls broke out frequently; snideness triumphed; perverts, predators, and pettifoggers gathered in dark corners to prey on the lost and naïve. Now, though, the place projects the upbeat vigor of a Zumba session and the fellow-feeling of a neighborhood café. On Facebook, strangers coo at photos of your college roommate’s South American vacation. Op-eds—widely praised—are generously circulated. And warmth flows even where it probably shouldn’t. Today, you find that 27 human beings have “liked” an Instagram photo of your little sister’s breakfast muffin. You learn your best and smartest friend in high school—a girl you swapped big dreams with before falling out of touch—just married some guy with enormous bags under his eyes and the wild, deranged grin of Charlie Sheen. You are vaguely concerned, but the web is not. “Congratulations!!!” someone has written underneath the face of Crazy Rictus Man. “luv you guys!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” enthuses someone else. You count the exclamation points. There are sixteen. You wonder whether there is any Advil close at hand.