It has become a truism of late that the internet in general and social media-driven “Web 2.0” in particular have had a disastrous effect on most people’s ability to understand ambiguity and get along with others. This point has been made in ways ranging from slangy, vulgar observations like “everyone’s an a-hole on the internet” to high-profile Congressional hearings and even academic books. I don’t think anybody seriously disputes it anymore. Regardless of whether one chooses to blame ‘deplorable MAGA bigots,’ ‘cucked soyboy libtards,’ both, or neither, everyone in our society seems to have reached a consensus that the internet has become a terrible place to discuss anything serious. This extends to the realms of politics, religion, and even ostensibly lower-stakes topics like sports and movies.
I can attest that this feature of online culture has affected my own life, and I have observed how it’s affecting Catholic media spaces. Much of this is common knowledge insofar as it deals with massive social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which have billions of users (or, at least, billions of accounts) and whose baneful sociopolitical influence is widely acknowledged. However, much of it also has to do with the somewhat more niche and opaque “chan” culture. This is a space that influences the more mainstream internet culture but of which most people–those sometimes called “normies” for having interests and priorities mostly not revolving around niche internet communities–are either unaware or only aware through vague stereotypes and generalities.
Because the “chan” scene is these days strongly associated with the political far right, it can be difficult to remember that it didn’t “have” to be this way, and indeed when I was growing up it was primarily a space for the kind of utopian technolibertarianism that seems naïve today. My first clear memory of this corner of internet culture is from 2006, when members of the imageboard 4chan engaged in a series of “raids” (organized trolling campaigns) against a kitschy, extremely Web 1.0 proto-social-media site called Habbo Hotel. I have very clear memories of looking over my high school classmate Zack’s shoulder as he showed the rest of the class a poorly-rendered scene of a bunch of suit-clad men in afros blocking a virtual swimming pool, on the indisputable, tautological grounds that “Pool’s Closed.” How we laughed!
Over the next five years I used anonymous imageboard sites fairly liberally, mostly to have media fandom discussions around series like Doctor Who and various mid-2000s anime. By the time I was nineteen or twenty I had more or less outgrown the imageboard milieu, but for a while I continued to believe in a somewhat more mature, older, sadder, arguably-wiser version of that original quasi-utopian vision. Unfettered free, anonymous discussion of everything under the sun, including discussion of subjects that were taboo in polite society, was supposed to create a “marketplace of ideas” that would lead to greater transparency and social tolerance for all. The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings had at first seemed like they might substantiate this, as had Occupy Wall Street. I really thought that the next time anonymous internet culture became socio-politically relevant, it might be the time that “worked.”
Obviously that isn’t what happened. Even if one approves of the right-wing political currents that are associated with chan culture today, the tone and style of current political debate is self-evidently toxic in ways that are manifestly fostered by anonymity, lack of accountability, and lack of a real sense that one’s interlocutors are real people at all, rather than profile pictures (on mainstream social media sites) or serial numbers (on imageboards) with no subjectivity, emotions, or independent will. Along with this “flattened” view of one’s fellow human beings comes a “flattened” political and even aesthetic language. “Based,” a term that originally carried a very specific meaning of a person or ideology that “told it like it was” without caring about mainstream opinion, has gotten broader and broader in meaning until at this point it’s almost meaningless except as a generic positive attribute. The same has happened with “cringe” becoming a generic negative attribute where it once had a specific meaning involving secondhand embarrassment or schadenfreude. I use these examples both because they’re terms that I’ve seen escaping from containment on imageboards into the wilds of Catholic social media—Where Peter Is has itself been called “cringe” many times and “based” at least twice by my count—and because I’ve, to my own horror, started using these words this way myself.
Once the tenor of online discussion becomes completely disconnected from both real people and normal language, it starts to project an image of the way the world works that has little or nothing in common with reality. This is how we end up with extremely-online zoomers who have genuinely gotten the impression that radtrad Twitter trolls who post “Deus Vult” memes and describe Francisco Franco as “based and tradpilled” are more representative of the Catholic Church than the Pope or even the comparatively much more tepidly right-leaning USCCB. For such people the internet is not a utility or a communications medium so much as a separate-but-almost-equal layer of reality, like in the cyberpunk novel Neuromancer or the 90s anime Serial Experiments Lain. In this layer of reality, the Catholic Church is in fact a based and tradpilled religion whose attitude towards the world and the societies in which it finds itself remains unchanged from a cartoon caricature of Pius IX’s time on the Chair of Peter. This misapprehension then gets spread through other, left-leaning online environments, until finally we have a reification of the culture war where the “based reactionaries” among us have positioned themselves as so thoroughly representative of the Church that the natural response of their “cringe leftoid” opposite numbers is to become anti-Catholic without looking any further into things.
I know someone who claims, ridiculously in my opinion, that “Gamergate,” a chan-driven online dust-up around 2014 that had to do with the gender politics of video game fandom, was one of the worst historical events ever to occur because it directly caused neo-nationalism and Trump. This is, as I’ve said, ridiculous, but the fact that anybody can seriously advance the claim says something in itself. Such a claim could only be made in a world in which the relative importance of “online” and “not-online” is being gotten completely backwards. In a way this is a natural evolution from the old Anglophone magic-words attitude where you can be, for example, as racist or sexist or xenophobic (or anti-Catholic!) as you see fit just as long as you don’t say the wrong things, the wrong obvious slurs or canards. But the idea that it’s important to avoid needlessly antagonizing people or communicating baseless hostility towards them by saying inappropriate or prejudiced things has at least some merit. It’s difficult to see what possible merit the idea that the internet’s meta-reality is more important and more self-existent than the material world could ever have, or how anybody could have come to believe it other than the fact that online arguments are, simply, really good at holding one’s attention.
The patron saint of the internet—unofficially, at least—is St. Isidore of Seville, a seventh-century Spanish bishop whose Etymologies has been called the last great scholarly work of the ancient world. It’s a massive encyclopedia structured around putative origins given to then-common words and concepts, citing sources going back far into Antiquity. “Now ‘know’ (scire) is named from ‘learn’ (discere), because none of us knows unless we have learned,” Isidore asserts in the book’s first chapter. Indeed, none of us knows unless we have learned; however, it’s all too easy to think that we know something because someone called Pius Donatus Fortunatus Theophylactus with a Baroque painting as his avatar asserted it on Twitter in between two pictures of Groyper wearing a mitre.
And so it happens that some of the loudest voices in Catholicism today decrying the “modern world” and its accoutrements are also those most heavily involved in this extraordinarily modern, perpetually-online way of conducting oneself. Actually living an authentic, “rooted” traditionalism involves, by definition, getting out of one’s head and spending time in the external world around other people, places, and things. But that can be very difficult, and it’s only getting more difficult with each passing decade of neglect of the commons and of shared institutions. Sociological terms for this include “atomization” and “anomie”—the experience of always being shut up in one’s home or in a repressive and impersonal built environment, not really knowing or connecting to others except in extremely stylized, mediated ways. It’s little wonder that people subjected to this way of life would end up rebelling against it in ways that are just as unsettling, impersonal, and fake as what they rebel against.
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Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.