This awesome dissection of internet hyperbole will make you cry and change your life
Exaggeration is the official language of the internet. Only the most strident statements have any impact. Oversteer and oversell, all the time
The Guardian, Tuesday 7 October 2014 06.00 AEST
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Kate Bush live at the Hammersmith Apollo, London in 2014. Photograph: Ken McKay/Rex
The other day I was talking to a music fan who’d recently gone to see one of Kate Bush’s widely praised live appearances. Naturally I was keen to hear a first-hand account of this era-defining event, so I asked what it was like.
“The first half was great,” she said. “But the second half got a bit boring.”
Well that was jarring. For weeks I’d been told by seemingly everyone on the internet that witnessing Kate Bush live was a life-changing event; a transformative experience of staggering magnitude. Attendees described a sort of positive version of the climactic ark-opening sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark, of thousands of people simultaneously overpowered by a work of supernatural genius. Apparently these people didn’t simply attend a rock concert – they were French-kissed by God. So majestic was the performance, all the molecules in their bodies were disassembled and temporarily rearranged into a pulsating jellyfish of pure enjoyment, basking helplessly yet blissfully on the shores of Lake Kate, before the stunning finale finally healed and reformed them and sent them on their way. They crawled from the venue on all fours, uncontrollably weeping and soiling themselves all the way home. Hours later, once they’d finished shaking, they went on Twitter and explained how even the typographical layout of the ticket stub had made them cry nine times. And yet here was someone shrugging at it all.
And make no mistake, the person I’d spoken to was a bona fide Kate Bush fan herself, yet one who described feeling so disconnected from the feverish level of excitement and sense of occasion other audience members were displaying – even on their way in, before a note had been sung – she was left feeling almost like an imposter. I suspect that partly explains the shrug. It’s too big a build-up. Nothing can match that level of expectation.
Perhaps the impossible-to-live-up-to tidal wave of praise came about in part because Bush had been clever enough to ask people not to stand around like mindless absorption pods, dumbly filming the gig on their smartphones. Maybe, with those smartphones tucked away, a sizeable percentage of the audience was being shocked by the reality of their first non screen-parlayed experience of the past five years. It must be like eating salt and vinegar crisps for the first time after weeks of a sense-numbing heavy cold: the sheer rush of unmediated reality almost takes your face off.
But maybe the praise reached deranged heights because nothing’s allowed to simply be “very good” or even “great” any more. We’ve ramped up the hyperbole: it’s amazing; it’s awesome. We focus on the personal impact: it’ll rock your world; it’ll change your life. You’ll be so stuffed full of wonder you’ll split at the seams.
Generally, as a species, we used to avoid these kind of exaggerated emotional outpourings. Still do, in person. But online, people routinely claim to have been reduced to tears by YouTube clips, Facebook posts, newspaper articles, and inspirational gifs. You cried at that? Honestly? Pics or it didn’t happen. And if your face leaks that easily, step away from the keyboard and call a plumber.
All this babble about being blown away, overcome, and reduced to a state of stunned amazement used to be the preserve of creepy people in adverts, the kind of grinning fictional gimps who’d burst into song if they enjoyed their fish fingers. At least they were being paid to exaggerate their opinions. We’re just trying to fit in, which is infinitely sadder somehow.
We’re trying to fit in because exaggeration is the official language of the internet, a talking shop so hopelessly overcrowded that only the most strident statements have any impact. Hence the rise of Buzzfeed-style click-bait headlines: The Late Leonid Brezhnev Just Invented the World’s Most Awesome Dance Move. What This Teacher Tells Her Class Will Change Your Life Forever. You Won’t Believe the State of this Guy’s Asshole. And so on.
The same digital ecosystem that gave rise to click-bait headlines is working its magic on the rest of us. Something about the way the online world has coagulated around social networks that subconsciously convert everyday conversation into a form of entertainment – with a follower count providing a running score – is turning us into click-bait people. Perform, entertain, exaggerate. All oversteer and oversell, all the time.
And of course in this increasingly binary world, if good equals amazing, bad equals catastrophic. Any disappointment, any setback, anyone who steps out of line – all instantly labelled the Worst Thing Ever. Displease the hive mind, and the same people pretending to shed sentimental tears over a kiddywink’s school project on YouTube will only stop screaming for your blood when the next hate figure stumbles into view.
I never thought I’d say this, but I sort of miss “meh”. “Meh” used to be the standard internet response to anything even 1% less than astounding. “Meh” was obnoxious: the sound of personal entitlement and sneery dismissal; the noise a spoiled child emperor makes when the pyramid his slaves have built turns out to be half a metre lower than he expected. But it was infinitely more honest than pretending to cry.
It’s enough to make you weep. Or rather not weep. And pretend you did.