The mutation of a meme can sometimes be telling. In 2014, a post began making the rounds on Facebook, urging people to fill their timelines with links to music, to break “the monotony of selfies and sensationalism.” By late 2015, the form of the monotony had changed; now it consisted of “nasty, divisive headlines and negativity.” Soon it had become “the monotony of politics and posts about people killing each other.” This most recent revival of the meme bore witness to the early summer of 2016, with its seemingly endless litany of bad news—Baghdad’s worst bombing in more than a decade, the Orlando night-club massacre, the Istanbul airport explosion, continued police shootings in the United States, flares of terrorism and far-right nativism across Europe, and a farcically ugly U.S. Presidential election, all set to the relentless bass line of climate-change reports, which counted out one record-breakingly hot month after another.
Most people who spend time on the Internet will likely have asked themselves whether things are really getting worse, or whether it just feels that way. Constant online exposure to the world’s troubles no doubt encourages an end-of-days mood, but the consequences of using social media as a news channel are more complex than your run-of-the-mill existential dread. To blame “monotony,” a blasé description in the context of “people killing each other,” is to miss that the defining feature of social media is a mismatch of scale. The feed is where we go both to be informed about the world and to escape its violence. It is designed to accommodate the personal and the planetary, political awareness and head-in-the-sand retreat. These opposite poles of life are dressed in identical trappings, and we’re invited to react to them with a single, limited set of coded responses. The same thumb goes up when friends post photos of their Canadian camping trip and when they check in safe after an attack in Brussels or Nice or New York or Berlin. As a result, the social-media news cycle demands of us a bifocal gaze, one that comes with a particular emotional toll.
A better word than “monotony” for this chronic mixing of moods would be “bathos,” which describes the deflation or anticlimax that occurs when two opposing tones or registers clash in a work of art. We owe the term to the eighteenth-century English poet Alexander Pope, who coined it in a corrosive treatise called “Peri Bathous; Or, the Art of Sinking.” While Western writers had long been interested in language’s ability to transport the listener or reader to an exalted, sublime plane of experience, Pope saw in the work of his peers a tendency in the opposite direction. Lacking the genius necessary to reach the lofty heights of sublimity, they unintentionally followed “the gentle down-hill way to the Bathos.”
Two main classes of figurative language, Pope argued, were responsible: “the Magnifying” and “the Diminishing.” A bathetic poet such as Lewis Theobald might write an overblown rendition of someone lighting an ordinary fire: “Bring forth some remnant of Promethean theft, / Quick to expand th’ inclement air congealed.” Or he might announce the simple act of opening a letter as “Wax! render up thy trust.” Likewise, Pope wrote, a poet such as Richard Blackmore would belittle the ocean with the pedestrian image of housework: “The ocean, joyed to see the tempest fled, / New lays his waves, and smooths his ruffled bed.” Or he might reduce the Lord Almighty to a humble supplier of leavened goods: “God in the wilderness his table spread, / And in his airy ovens baked their breads.” Pope’s sarcastic rules to achieving bathos in poetry were a clear attack on the aesthetic and moral climate of his time. He saw his fellow-citizens as being naturally bathetic—striving for spiritual grandeur while ultimately mired in everyday, material concerns. This, he concluded, was the “natural Taste of Man.”
Have we since outgrown this taste? Televised news, unlike eighteenth-century English poets, has always been wary of bathos, which is why those cheering stories that form the news’s lighter side are typically reserved for last, often with a cushion of sports or weather in between. This format imposes a crude narrative structure on the day’s events, with peril ultimately usurped by a happy, or at least whimsical, conclusion. Yet such careful management of emotional tone is absent in the social-media news feed, which in this sense is closer to the rawness of real life, with its moments of shock and unexpected shifts in mood.
Ian McEwan’s novel “Saturday,” from 2005, dramatizes the experience of the twenty-four-hour news cycle before the arrival of social media. In that post-9/11 period of increased news saturation, there was still the sense that the anxieties provoked by being informed could be separated from the humbler pleasures of everyday experience. In the novel, a teen-ager named Theo, worn down with grim tidings, frames the problem of modern optimism in terms of scale. “When we go on about big things, the political situation, global warming, world poverty, it all looks really terrible,” he says. “But when I think small, closer in—you know, a girl I’ve just met, or this song we’re going to do with Chas, or snowboarding next month, then it looks great. So this is going to be my motto—think small.”
Beyond the gauche privilege and complacency of Theo’s small-mindedness, most striking is his idea that the big and the small can be compartmentalized in this way. For us digital humans, downstream from Web 2.0 and the social-media revolution, the two scales are continually flung together. A rant about the summer trend of men wearing flip-flops sits above an elegy for Arctic ice; photos from that snowboarding trip live beside images of coral reefs bleached to near-oblivion. We think big and small in the same swish of a fingertip. The careful orchestration of TV news, like the delineation of newspapers into sections, was perhaps, all along, a sort of protection.
This summer, Facebook could be seen grappling with its ambiguous position as both a co-edited family photo album and an outlet for information. It made two adjustments to the algorithm governing its News Feed, lurching bathetically between the local and the global. The first change came in late June, announced in an official blog post. “FRIENDS AND FAMILY COME FIRST,” a caps-locked subheading assured us; personal stories would be prioritized. But then, on August 11th, another blog entry appeared, this time explaining that “informative” posts would receive higher billing. The news was back, although Facebook intended to maintain the intimate tone. The News Feed, the company explained, would be improved through “global crowd-sourced surveys of tens of thousands of people per day.” To the layperson, this is one of Big Data’s stranger qualities—that the portrait of an individual emerges from the crunched crowd. And when the main criterion for relevance is general interest, the individual is left exposed to the two extremes of popularity—spectacular events and viral trivia. Just because most people like cat videos and most people care about terrorist attacks, it does not follow that most people want to experience them side by side.
As mundanity mingles with tragedy, we confront the inevitable Popian letdown: Do we care enough? Do we have the right to our local contentment? Our joys can seem at once shamefully full and depressingly empty. I have online friends on both sides of the Atlantic, and, looking down my News Feed, I’ve often felt the heedlessness of one continent in the face of the other’s torments.
It is comforting to note, however, that our era isn’t alone in its bathetic encounters. When most people think of Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” they think of the sublime madeleine scene, in which a bite of the tea-soaked cake conjures memories from the gardens of the narrator’s childhood. But the novel cycle has another pastry-dunking incident that deserves our attention here. It involves Madame Verdurin, a despotic salon hostess who circumvents the rationing laws of the First World War to get the special croissants that, when taken dipped in coffee, supposedly ease her migraines. She is reunited with these medicinal treats on the morning that the newspapers announce the sinking of the Lusitania, a British ocean liner, by a German submarine. Her initial outcry at the news is suitably humane, though she can’t help comparing the disaster (as many people did on witnessing 9/11) to some fictional catastrophe. Proust doesn’t allow Madame Verdurin such pure sympathies, however. His narrator continues:
But the death of all these drowned people must have been reduced a thousand million times before it impinged upon her, for even as, with her mouth full, she made these distressful observations, the expression which spread over her face, brought here (one must suppose) by the savor of that so precious remedy against the headaches, the croissant, was in fact one of satisfaction and pleasure.
This vignette gets its bathetic comedy from the collision of two scales: the immensity of war and its mass casualties hitting against private comforts. Proust mercilessly shows how thinking small can trump thinking big, how a buttery morsel can dwarf life’s grandest horrors. Pope writes in his mock-guide for bad poets that their eyes “should be like unto the wrong end of a perspective glass, by which all the objects of nature are lessened.” Alas, Madame Verdurin’s sinking feelings are not hers alone, since who among us isn’t implicated in this moment of tactless pleasure? It is part of our hourly adventures in the News Feed, with its blithe slide show of photogenic pastries and bloodied refugees. This digital bathos, the deflating consequence of an amoral algorithm, no doubt contributes to our general sense of unease about the social-media project. For in these continual descents from the tragic to the whimsical, we are troubled both by the sufferings of others and by our own placid, treacherous consolations.