Masochism is a funny thing. Take, for instance, the bruise-pushers of the Internet.
From time to time, I will enjoy dinner with a certain group of friends. One evening, we came to the subject of the people on the Internet, people we follow voluntarily, who persist in foisting irritations upon us.
By now, everyone can recite the mortal and venial sins of online discourse. Dullness. Pomposity. Perpetual outrage. Oversharing. All caps. Oversharing in all caps. Self-promotion. Self-admiration. Mutual self-admiration. Mutual self-admiration in all caps.
Poor choice of subject matter. Trips to Bed Bath & Beyond. Trips to the doctor. Trips into one's psyche. Runs. Puns. Politics. Photos of kids. Photos of cats. Photos of yourself, buried in kids and cats. Lunch. Dinner. Charcuterie.
Exclamations of happiness. (Obnoxious!) Exclamations of misery. (Emo.) Exclamations of placid serenity. (Get a life!) All of the above, in new and interesting combinations.
The fact that every one of us was guilty of these sins, in spades, did not deter us. We had a good grouse.
But the next time we met, we found that our conversation returned to the same people we'd groused about before. This led to an awkward question: If we'd all been irritated enough by these people to discuss them at length, why were we still following them, stalking their Facebook pages, glowering over their Twitter feeds?
A brief silence ensued. Finally, the wisest among us spoke.
"It's like pushing a bruise," he said. And here he made a little gesture of mashing an imaginary bruise on his arm. He grinned, as if he were kind of enjoying it.
Pushing a bruise, indeed. There exists a remarkable causal relationship between aching discomfort and online readership, a relationship that doesn't get the recognition it deserves.
Pain is a peculiar form of pleasure, and this is just as true online as off. We can chalk many things up to it, starting with the bizarre popularity of Kanye West as an Internet figure; the man is so reliably oblivious and cringeworthy that his Twitter utterances have become widely circulated items.
It's easy to love to hate a celebrity, weaving an enjoyably broken relationship that never needs to be actualized in real life. Loving to hate those who, in some way, you actually know is a different quandary altogether.
Today, the social-media world is entirely organized around news feeds, the streams of updates that pour in on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or whatever your drug is. People don't write single missives any more; rather, they dribble out their thoughts one drip at a time. Over time psychic bruises form, less from a single provocation or a moment of outrage than from a hundred small moments of wincing.
Sooner or later, when dealing with the person who has made one too many cat-related puns, who casually insulted your entire profession once more than he ought, who sneered a sneer too far ("UGH!"), the moment arrives when you ask yourself whether it's worth it.
Your finger hovers precipitously over the "Unfollow" button - the finger of Damocles. And somewhere in the recesses of your reptilian mind, you realize with a queasy lurch that, for some reason, your life is a little bit fuller for it all.
Empirical data on the rates of online irritation are hard to come by. (I would be the first to volunteer my tax dollars for a study.) Anecdotally, however, there's plenty.
Everyone I speak to have their own reasons for keeping their pet peeves fed and watered. Some people are cowed by the thought of severing ties, which leads, of course, to bruised feelings and social repercussion. Some enjoy the flash of superiority that comes with the scorn. Some feel that muting their obstreperous friends would represent a kind of personal defeat. Some just enjoy complaining too much.
Many succumb to a kind of Stockholm syndrome: Eventually they not only enjoy the sensation of being irritated, but begin to feel a certain awe of their captors' ability to turn their bland trip to Joey Calzone's into an update of transcendental boredom.
Ultimately, the afflicted may even get sucked into the vortex themselves, responding, say, to an episode of online aggro with aggro they didn't even know they had. ("Wow," a friend muttered to me this week. "You're really pushing the bruise today.") It's true that we've pushed bruises in other mediums since time immemorial. Insistently reading a newspaper columnist who reliably gets under your skin (well, hello!) is pushing a bruise. Grimacing through a TV movie when you could be watching a bland sitcom is pushing a bruise. Masochism is a world unto itself.
But it's telling that we continue to push bruises on the Internet, a medium whose hallmark is self-selection and choice. When push comes to shove, the decision of who to follow and not follow online is a matter of preference. It's not like an office relationship, in which people are bonded in close quarters on pain of losing their livelihoods. It's not like family, whose resilient ties lead to awkward holiday dinners and the occasional continental bloodbath.
No, online friendship is a choice people make without much duress. It reminds us that irritation isn't just something to be avoided; it's an entertainment option. For all the people who delight in what we say and do online, odds are that every one of us is also a bruise that somebody, somewhere, is pushing.
It's not a scourge, it's a blessing. Enjoy your cringe.