Because the Internet

This morning, my alarm went off, and I did the same thing I do every day: I reached for my phone.

It’s a nasty habit, I know, one that I’m not particularly proud of, like my inclination to absently pick my nose when I’m sitting in traffic. But in 2020, I think looking at my phone in the morning is no different than when my parents read the morning paper.

I like catching up on the news that happened since I went to bed; the basketball game I slept through or the State of the Union I avoided on purpose.

What met me this morning was an article from the local news about a high school student who started an electrical fire in his classroom with a phone charger and a penny.

Now, kids have been jamming stuff into electrical sockets since Edison faced off with Tesla. But this student was apparently inspired by a series of videos on a social media app.

It’s called “the outlet challenge,” and it entails plugging half of a phone charger into a socket and touching a penny to the exposed prong. The desired effect is to produce a shower of sparks, a mini-fireworks show you can share with your friends via TikTok. But what usually happens is that the outlet catches fire.

That’s what happened to this boy from Manassas, who was charged with negligent burning and vandalism. He didn’t release a statement to the public, but I’m sure if he did, it would’ve gone something like “I thought it would be cool,” and then shrug.

I can’t help but feel kids have gotten dumber since I was that age, that over time, common sense has diminished almost to zero. In the last few years, I’ve watched kids try to swallow mouthfuls of cinnamon, concuss themselves with weighted blankets, burn themselves with ice and salt, and poison themselves with laundry detergent.

But when I really start digging through the mental archives of my youth, I realize we were probably just as dumb.

After all, kids of my generation were the ones pinning each other against walls at sleepovers until we passed out, or emulating Bam Margera and Johnny Knoxville by jumping off roofs into card tables.

I myself dabbled in dumbassery by joining a backyard wrestling league, though I stopped short of having my friend smash a guitar over my head. But generally, I knew when to say when. One time when I was at a party, our host emerged from the basement with his father’s hunting rifle and ran around the house pretending to shoot people. I was so appalled by the scene, plucked straight from the script of an After-School Special, that I left.

But also, it’s not just the kids who are dumb. Last week, I woke to a bunch of brooms clogging my Facebook feed. Apparently, someone had tweeted the earth was at “full tilt,” which meant for the next 24 hours, the planet’s gravitational alignment was so perfect, an ordinary kitchen broom would stand on its bristles. The tweet cited NASA as its source.

Now, I remember balancing brooms to avoid chores when I was little, but apparently none of my Facebook friends ever had to sweep. Because over the course of the morning, dozens of them posted photos of brooms standing in their living rooms. And I’m not just talking my dumbass friends who live with their parents. I’m talking about successful middle-aged, well-educated professionals with families, showing off their broom-balancing skills like they were David Fucking Blaine.

“Isn’t science amazing?” read the caption of one post from a friend with a doctorate and a six-figure income.

The outpouring of amazed broom challengers was so significant, I began questioning my own memory. Did I not play this game when I was a kid? Was it a task I only attempted when the earth just so happened to be at optimal gravity?

I was just about to scour the janitor’s closet and try it for myself when I saw the CNN headline:

Hate to Break it to You, but you Can Make a Broom Stand Upright Any Day of The Year.

According to the article, not only could CNN not find any evidence NASA would ever lower itself to reporting on a parlor trick involving a broom, but the perfect tilt, optimal gravity nonsense is a myth physicists have debunked numerous times.

And as this new development began snaking its way through cyberspace and anti-broom trolls started making fun of the house moms who spent all morning taking photos of their cleaning implements, I felt at once vindicated for being smarter than the average Facebook poster and guilty for laughing at their ignorance. 

The thing is, 90 percent of what I consume on social media is complete garbage. Aside from a tiny chuckle or a spritz of dopamine, I don’t learn anything or enrich my life in any way.

If I was made of stronger stuff, I’d just delete my platforms altogether. The free time would give me an opportunity to finally read Infinite Jest or clean out those storage bins in the garage my wife has been bugging me about since we started dating.

But I can’t bring myself to go dark. Why? Because deep down, I’m a petty asshole addicted to watching people making fools of themselves in front of the whole world.

It’s not that uncommon of a trait, I don’t think. It’s the same base emotional desire that has kept reality television popular for so long. We tune in because it’s enthralling to watch morons engage in an endless battle to see who can say the most ignorant thing.

Only on Facebook, the morons aren’t actors. They’re people I’ve actually met in real life.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have at least 20 Facebook friends I only keep around to see what they’ll say next. It’s like going to dinner with your racist Uncle Lou; you know it’s only a matter of time before he’ll give you something to talk about for the car ride home.

One such Facebook friend is Mike, a guy I went to high school with. To my knowledge, Mike and I have never spoken; I’m not even sure we’ve ever been in the same room. But boy, am I glad we’re Facebook friends, because Mike provides hours of endless entertainment.

Most of Mike’s posts are about politics, and though I support healthy political discourse, I doubt any of our world’s problems will be solved by posts like the one I saw from him a few months ago, which simply read “Donald Trump has a small penis.” I mean, who’s your source on this? Even the broom guy cited NASA.

Mike’s rants usually have major structural issues. His assertions lack insight, his logic is flimsy, his comma usage is atrocious. But god bless him, he states his opinions with conviction. He knows his stances might be unpopular, so he ends every post with “IF YOU DO NOT LIKE WHAT I HAVE TO SAY, UNFRIEND ME NOW,” which is basically the internet equivalent of telling someone they can take a long walk off a short pier.

The week after the Super Bowl, a few pearl-clutching teetotalers complained about the appropriateness of the halftime show and created an echo chamber of bitching. That’s when Mike decided to jump into the fray.

Mike wanted to know why Christians were so upset with Shakira’s butt jiggling on TV but weren’t concerned about their clergymen raping children. Now, I had a hard time connecting the dots between the two issues. I assume most people, regardless of religious affiliation, have an anti-molestation stance, but Mike’s argument apparently made a lot of sense to Julia, whom jumped to the defense of Christians everywhere.

Julia told Mike it was the Catholics who did all the raping, not the Christians. She ended her sentence with “LOL,” which I assume meant I was supposed to envision her finishing her thought by laughing like the Joker.

Mike fired back with an LOL of his own, adding a “Wanna bet?” and an emoji of a smiley face wearing sunglasses.

From there, I knew it was on.

For the next seven hours, Mike and Julia battled, trading poor points and even poorer grammar about whether Catholicism and Christianity were indeed one in the same. An argument, by the way, which had nothing to do with the original Super Bowl post.

Just when it looked like Mike had dealt Julia’s case a death blow, posting a screen shot of a Google search titled “is Christianity the same as Catholicism,” Julia pulled out the big guns. She called Mike annoying, an argumentative idiot, just interested in stirring the pot. She also called him ignorant and uneducated, which to me felt a little redundant, but I appreciated the enthusiasm.

Julia ended her rant by using the peace sign emoji, indicating she was taking the high road.

To the untrained eye, it would’ve appeared the battle had concluded. But a sophisticated social media voyeur such as myself knows the truly ignorant can’t just let it go.

Both Mike and Julia, now blocked from each other, continued to seethe on their own Facebook pages. Mike tried to prolong the conversation by goading his friends to pile on. Only one took the bait; a guy named Terry, who was ready to spit some rage.

“Who the fuck is she to demean you like that?” Terry said.

Julia responded in her own way.

“Pretty scary stalker when someone you blocked/deleted/ irrelevant is making posts dedicated about you. Why you so obsessed with me?”

I do feel guilty for laughing at the stupidity of others. I know it’s because I think I’m somehow superior to them, that I’m smarter or better educated. I don’t like that someone’s pain is my pleasure, but like a car accident, it’s hard to look away.

To combat this guilt, I started limiting my social media time, allowing myself only an hour a day. Once my time expires, my phone notifies me and grays out the apps. I can still use them, but I have to click “ignore limit,” which is usually enough guilt to get me to put down my phone. 

I’ve found the time limit makes my social media surfing more deliberate. I read the news and sports scores and look at pictures of my friends’ ugly kids. But every once in awhile, I’ll get pulled onto the rocks by the siren song of idiocy.

Mike’s post this morning began with a math problem that was somehow related to the president’s travel expenses. “If Obama did this shit I mean…. oh boy would the Right freak out on a massive scale… there would literally be global warming (oh wait there already is) lol

“So if you still support Trump —”

An hourglass appeared on my phone screen. “Time Limit,” it read. “You’ve reached your limit on Facebook.”

The guilt set in. Had it already been an hour? Where had the time gone?

I knew an hour was enough, that I didn’t need more kids shoving pennies into light sockets or grown-ass men incorrectly defying the laws of gravity, or Mike’s emoji-laden hate.

My phone was right. I had reached my limit.

But, like the addict I am, I couldn’t resist.

I clicked my phone’s ignore button, telling it not to remind me I’m a terrible person until tomorrow.

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