Every time Vulture posts about celebrities reading mean tweets about themselves on Jimmy Kimmel Live, readers go bananas. And it’s true that for the celebrities on Kimmel’s show, this is essentially all a big publicity stunt. It’s famous-person code for, “Look at how down-to-earth I am!” and so on. But it made me think of how easy the internet has made it for almost any of us, famous or not, to get sucked down a spiral of self-loathing, masochistically seeking out the negative things other people have said about us online.
I do this in my own life every time I break the No. 1 rule of internet journalism, which is to never read the comments. And just this week, my boyfriend got a brief boost into a minor kind of fame, when he appeared as a Jeopardy! contestant. After his episode aired, he told me that he went online to read things strangers had tweeted about him, and that it was mostly the negative stuff that kept him up well into the wee hours.
Brian Southwell, a University of North Carolina professor whose research covers the intersection of old social questions and new technology, touched on exactly this phenomenon in his new book. Sometimes, he said to Science of Us in an email, he can’t resist the urge to read negative Amazon reviews of his book, or scroll through the comments on Rate My Professor. But, being an expert, he has some theories on why we subject ourselves to this odd kind of online masochism.
“Most people, no matter the level of celebrity they achieve, are wired to assess threats in their environment and to seek external validation for their own sense of self,” he said. “Comments online, whether negative or positive, offer tangible and pithy evidence that helps to highlight the worst of what’s out there, in terms of threat.” It can be relieving, in other words, to feel like you’ve found the worst that’s been said about you. If you can withstand that, maybe you’re going to be okay.
And, in a way, it’s also just nice to be noticed at all. Some recent research showed that in certain cases, being ignored is even worse for your mental health than being bullied. “There is something compelling about the anonymity associated with online comments and with the fact that no one is forced to say anything online,” Southwell said. “Under those circumstances, in which no one has to say anything about you, it can be gratifying to know that people are willing to say something about you, even if it is negative.”
Anyway, it could be worse: At least no one’s goading you to go on television and read these things about yourself.