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Negativity is a Drug, And We’re Hooked

Modern life, despite all of its many comforts, is a cesspool.

We know it. We can feel it. We swim in it every day — a never ending torrent of information, images, and interactions — and we never come out sparkling clean, even if we try.

Social media is bad. The word “toxic” is overused, I suppose, but it’s also probably an understatement. We get online and we think we’re just going to read a few things or have a couple of interesting discussions, but the next thing we know, our blood starts boiling, we start throwing elbows, and maybe we even lob a few jabs below the belt.

I do it. I know I do it. I’m angry about so much that’s going on, and sometimes I just want a good scrap, so I dig in.

Ironically, this is the opposite of what I’m trying to do with the content here. I want it to be educational, enlightening, and encouraging.

But I have to admit, I’m frustrated.

Last night, I complained (on social media; where else?) about how we published a fantastic, moving, uplifting story about an incredible saint — St. Marianne Cope — who took the awful lives of lepers and turned them into something full of beauty and wonder, but that it only had 27 shares.

Meanwhile, my snarky post about Cardinal Wuerl getting millions of dollars in retirement hit 500 shares right out of the gate.

Now, my complaining seemed to have done some good for once. The St. Marianne Cope piece now has over 220 shares and counting, whereas the Wuerl piece is stuck right where it was.

But it had me up last night thinking about all of this stuff. About the fact that since I started trying to do a lot more St. Marianne Cope-type pieces and fewer Wuerl-type pieces, traffic on this website has dropped faster than Gavin Newsome’s approval rating. Whereas in 2018, at the height of all the Vigano revelations, we were getting somewhere between 25-30K pageviews a day, lately, we’re at fewer than 10K. In fact, we haven’t broken the 10K barrier in the past 30 days. Not even once. There could be several reasons for this, but traffic metrics over time tend to be a semi-reliable indicator about whether the content you’re producing is what your audience wants to consume.

In theory, we want to know about the good stuff. The stuff that’s positive and motivating and helps us to live better, more virtuous lives. The stuff that helps us to be inspired to make changes in the right direction.

But the minute someone drops a nasty, negative, outrageous story in front of us, we swarm like flies.

I’m not pointing the finger here. I do this as well. I mean, I wrote the Wuerl story because I saw it and it made me so angry. I layered it with snark I didn’t want to hold back. I couldn’t wait to get other people to be angry right along with me, because it was so infuriating. But because I’ve been doing this a long time, in the back of my mind was the thought, “This is the kind of thing you’re trying to do less of… but it’ll probably grab a bunch of clicks.”

Someone in the comments called it “outrage porn.” Maybe it was. I was certainly feeling outrage, and I knew you would too. But as I said to him, it’s the kind I think is worth putting out there once in a while.

But it’s hard not to think of yourself as a drug dealer sometimes, when you publish stories that can be described this way. People are addicted, and you wonder if you’re feeding it. Worse, you wonder if you’re doing it because traffic is how you pay the bills. And then you find yourself justifying it: “Better they get it from me than someone else. I’m going to try to present it in a way that’s less harmful. People deserve to know about this thing that’s happening. I have to inform them.”

I’m just not sure that’s always true, or what to do about it.

We’ve all been wired to seek out negativity. The old newspaper adage, “If it bleeds, it leads,” isn’t just a cliché. Have you ever tried to drive past a bad car accident on the side of the road and not look at it? It’s really, really hard.

You never see a traffic slowdown so people can rubberneck at wildflowers. Or a sunset. We might glance, but we keep right on going.

I bet evolutionary psychologists would say that we do this because we’re always looking for threats. That thousands of years of self-preservation instincts have been honed to disregard anything harmless and look for the predator stalking us through the tall grass with murderous intent. That looking at bad news and things that upset us somehow scratches the same itch in the brain as scanning for threats.

Maybe. But I wonder if there’s any way to fix it. I wonder if there’s a way to retrain our brains so that we look for the good stuff more than the bad.

I wonder if there’s a way to get a dopamine hit reading a positive story like there is reading one that spikes your blood pressure.

I wonder if there’s a way to really use the internet for good.

What do you think?

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