For every minute I spent thinking about climate change last year, I probably spent another twenty minutes scrolling through Zara’s massive summer sale. And while I’m genuinely terrified of the looming climate crisis and our government’s de facto refusal to prevent it, I’m selfishly even more terrified of my own hypocrisy — how I can reflexively roll my eyes when someone refuses to go vegetarian, but excuse my own passive refusal to recycle in my dorm room. How I can tweet about the dangers of performative activism in one tab and then order laundry detergent from Amazon Prime in another. How I can embrace self-delusion when it’s convenient and look down at others for doing the same.
This cognitive dissonance — my inability to transfer the empathy I feel in online spaces into offline action — is only one piece of a much larger consumerist puzzle. Not only does social media constantly remind us of all the ways we could be doing better (Should we be boycotting H&M? Unfollowing Trisha Paytas? Burning our Harry Potter merch?), but even our attempts to discuss these issues online still in some ways prop up the very things we’re attempting to criticize. Our likes, our views, our user data and, yes, even our hate comments generate financial and social capital for the creators we see, the platforms that host them and the advertisers that fund them both. Not only is our implication in the harm caused by late-stage capitalism seemingly inescapable, but even the methods we have to critique this consumerism still in some ways perpetuate it.
Social media exposes us to so many problems and tragedies that I’m often left feeling too overwhelmed to actually start addressing them. At the same time, I’ve also clicked through enough mid-roll ads in Youtubers’ blackface apology videos to make me wonder if avoiding moral implication is even possible at all. We often talk about what it means to vote with our dollar — how the products we buy have moral price tags as well as financial ones. On the internet, however, we vote with our clicks and our views. This means that simply witnessing a trend — or criticizing it — inevitably fuels related ideas, creators and corporations.
Take, for instance, the rise of online thrifting. While secondhand shopping has always been around, it’s fair to say that the internet has made it cool again. A cheap alternative to “fast fashion,” thrifting offers the best of both worlds: not only does it reduce your carbon footprint, but it allows you to snag those trendy “vintage” pieces that you can't always find shopping retail. And while thrift hauls on TikTok and YouTube have certainly helped popularize the practice, these same social media sites have also given rise to a wave of backlash.
Last summer, many internet users became concerned about the possibility of thrift store gentrification — that the sudden popularity of thrifting and resale make it harder for low-income shoppers to find wardrobe staples at their now picked-over local Savers. There was then, of course, also inevitable backlash to this backlash: As it turns out, stores like GoodWill and the Salvation Army actually receive so many donations that they end up dumping most of them in landfills or overseas markets anyway.
And while this emotional whiplash was honestly pretty exhausting, I did ultimately walk away from this debate with some genuinely actionable advice — that thrifting is good. It was still slightly haunting, however, to see Forever21 ads pop up between these sustainability-focused videos — a constant reminder that even the tools we use to debate the ethics of consumption are not free from the tactics used to market this very consumption to us. Unable to escape this implication at every turn, even successfully making a change to our consumption habits can still eerily feel like a failure. After all, I’m complicit whether I’m buying a textbook from Amazon or Amazon is mining my data.
While the thrifting debate was relatively quickly resolved, this model of online commentary extends far beyond climate change and sustainability. It’s a parallel cycle of discourse that Loyola University Chicago Associate Professor of Marketing Jenna Drenten has fittingly deemed the “TikTok tabloid.” Does Axel from TikTok actually deserve his fame? Should we be commenting on John Mulaney’s divorce? Should calorie counts be prefaced with trigger warnings? Is it appropriate to contact West Elm Caleb’s boss? In the TikTok tabloid, everyday users fuel debates about social media’s various fads and influencers.
As these questions might suggest, the most popular takes within these debates often boil down to “this trend is problematic so it shouldn’t be trendy” or “this famous person is problematic so they shouldn’t be famous.” What we are really having is a meta debate about the ethics of media consumption itself — in our world, a form of anti-capitalist commentary that is considerably less actionable than “stop shopping on Amazon.”
Even when we take issue with the trends and influencers that pop up on our For You page, in simply knowing about them we have already volunteered our participation in the form of views and attention. It’s not just that the internet makes me feel like I can never fully act on my values — simply being on the internet is itself proof of the fact that I quite literally cannot, no matter how hard I try. Our implication feels inevitable, but doing nothing still feels objectionable.
While this sounds pretty bleak and admittedly defeatist, I am by no means suggesting that we should stop trying altogether. Our small changes do in fact matter, especially when many of us commit to making them. The internet is, however, equal parts validating and frustrating, exhausting and invigorating, addictive and repulsive. And it’s the most corrosive elements of the internet — namely, the way it forces us to inevitably commodify ourselves and one another — that are cannibalizing what could otherwise be a force for good.
The Internet hasn’t hardened me to the world’s tragedies so much as it’s made me aware of my perpetual implication in them. Despite what pundits so often conclude, social media burnout isn’t as simple as mere desensitization to the world around you — it’s feeling the weight of everything all at once. There is power, however, in realizing that we’re not actually carrying this burden all alone.
Sarah McGrath ’24 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this column to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.