The untold story of the early 21st Century is how synthetic communities (e.g. forums, Facebook groups, Tumblr, blogospheres, subreddits, etc.) can exacerbate or even create mental problems by rapidly spreading dysfunctional ideas, worldviews, and behaviors. Cases in point:

  • “Pro-ana” websites that glorify anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders. Members of these forums often trade tips on how to starve themselves or throw up, how to survive on 300 calories a day or less, how to deal with side effects such as hair loss, etc. Can offer support and entrench someone in their disorder at the same time by reinforcing bad thinking patterns.
  • Incel websites where “involuntarily celibate” men trade bitter stories and anecdotes about their failures and issues with women. Focus tends not to be on self-improvement but on blaming others, such as desirable men, desirable women, women in general, society, etc.
  • Shoplifting blogs that share tips, tricks, “haul” pictures, etc. can stimulate and trigger cravings to shoplift. Most users are probably not kleptomaniacs but it can still lead someone to engage in risky behavior that they otherwise wouldn’t. (Similar phenomenon with certain websites about self-harm, drug use, dysphoria, and other disorders.)
  • MLMs often rely on synthetic and para-social connections to sustain themselves and keep their members invested and investing. Can lead to compulsive spending on “inventory” that never shifts, ruining real relationships by badgering people to buy (“Hey hun!“), and keeps the dream alive even when the market is completely saturated.
  • Political extremism. Political posts across the spectrum are full of heightened emotions and aggression, with some people openly calling for the enemy to be gutted or burned alive. This isn’t new, though there’s more of it now. I’ve seen more posts casting politics as an existential struggle.
  • Fan clubs for mass murderers.

On some of these websites, the most negative/toxic/painful content floats to the top and gets the most attention and reinforcement. Can create a toxic loop where the reader/user/member looks for support, feels worse, looks for more support, feels even worse, looks for more…can’t psychologically return to “no support,” which keeps them locked in even though the support they get is not helping. Attempts to get them to break free come to nought, because it feels like they’re being torn away from their only real support, i.e. “the one group that gets it” or “the people who really understand me.”

Feature photo by Taylor Grote on Unsplash.

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