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The Unabomber, Inflatable Clowns, and Internet Villains
We invent struggle in our search for meaning.
My favorite tweet of all time says, “Each day on twitter there is one main character. The goal is to never be it.” I love it so much I asked for it to be printed on a coffee mug, and my brother got it for me as a gift a few years ago.
One of the most concerning trends I’ve seen as I’ve studied the internet and digital content the last decade or so is the perpetual propping up, pursuit, and pillorying of internet villains. We must always, as an internet society, have a sufficient suite of villains at whom we can direct the rage we feel because of the general state of things. Because of our general inability to process our emotions properly, we often decide to aim our rage at other people rather than exorcising it out through a more acceptable medium like exercise or the like.
Twitter is the crucible in which most internet villains are formed. Some have emerged from YouTube (Logan Paul), others have emerged from Facebook (Joshua Feuerstein), but most have been borne of Twitter. In the last couple of years, Donald Trump, Joe Rogan, Elon Musk, Andrew Tate, and plenty of others have been the main characters of Twitter and therefore the prime villains of the internet’s collective rage (even if plenty of users like these people).
I don’t have any interest in commenting on these individuals or why they became villains in the first place. What I am most interested in is that there needs be a perpetual internet villain at all. I think this can be explained by what is called “surrogate activities.”
Best as I can tell, the term “surrogate activities” was either invented or at least popularized by none other than the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski in his manifesto. He wrote:
A surrogate activity is an activity that is directed toward an artificial goal that the individual pursues for the sake of the “fulfillment” that he gets from pursuing the goal, not because he needs to attain the goal itself. For instance, there is no practical motive for building enormous muscles, hitting a little ball into a hole or acquiring a complete series of postage stamps. Yet many people in our society devote themselves with passion to bodybuilding, golf or stamp-collecting. Some people are more “other-directed” than others, and therefore will more readily attach importance to a surrogate activity simply because the people around them treat it as important or because society tells them it is important. That is why some people get very serious about essentially trivial activities such as sports, or bridge, or chess, or arcane scholarly pursuits, whereas others who are more clear-sighted never see these things as anything but the surrogate activities that they are, and consequently never attach enough importance to them to satisfy their need for the power process in that way.
Here is another excerpt from Kaczynski:
We use the term “surrogate activity” to designate an activity that is directed toward an artificial goal that people set up for themselves merely in order to have some goal to work toward, or let us say, merely for the sake of the “fulfillment” that they get from pursuing the goal.
Setting up and knocking down internet villains is a surrogate activity in which internet users pat one another on the back for slugging an inflatable punching bag clown that they themselves has decided is worth their time and attention.
We engage in surrogate activities when we eliminate real, consequential struggles from our lives. These surrogate activities are artificial struggles, games if you will, that we create to have some sort of goal to accomplish. It also satiates our hunger for conflict.
Posting about the issue of the day and piling on the latest villain is a surrogate activity—a fake goal we create to feel better about ourselves.
If we engage in this sort of thing, we ought to be asking if maybe we’re just bored and looking for a struggle to make our lives more interesting.
Maybe we’re inventing struggle in our search for meaning and purpose.
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