How Web Forums Make Neuroticism Viral

Web forums are full of neurotics. They breed neuroticism and make it go viral. Learn how and why this happens.

Open Discussion On The Web

One of the great virtues of the internet is that it enables open discussion, globally. There’s a web forum for pretty much any niche you can imagine, from communism to Nazism, from basket-weaving to base jumping.

No matter how niche the interest, the web can aggregate all devotees in one place. This is the genius of Reddit, now the 4th most-visited site in the US and #9 globally. Anybody can create a subreddit for any interest they have. Facebook users can create large global groups (at great cost to society). Twitter users create hashtags and linked networks of users for particular interests.

You can find a place to talk about anything you want on the internet. And if you can’t, make it yourself.

Neuroticism

A quick note on “neuroticism” as I refer to it here. I mean it in the sense of the “Big Five” personality traits. I’m going to lift a quick definition straight from Wikipedia, which will serve our purposes:

Individuals who score high on neuroticism are more likely than average to be moody and to experience such feelings as anxiety, worry, fear, anger, frustration, envy, jealousy, guilt, depressed mood, and loneliness. People who are neurotic respond worse to stressors and are more likely to interpret ordinary situations as threatening and minor frustrations as hopelessly difficult.

Neuroticism Is Widespread In Web Forums

A strange thing tends to happen as web communities grow: they become flooded with neurotics.

Let’s take a look at a couple examples to illustrate the point. If you’re a new parent or know someone who is, you may have heard of Mumsnet. The site began as a small discussion forum for mothers in the UK (hence the spelling). But a lack of quality web resources on parenting meant that it quickly showed up, ranked highly, in Google searches for all sorts of common parenting problems. The site blossomed into a behemoth; it’s one of the largest parenting sites in the world and the leader for discussion among parents.

Another thing: it’s packed to the gills with neurotic mothers. Take a look at the Mumsnet Madness Twitter feed for some examples. I picked one at random to share:

Imagine showing some of these posts to an average mother from the 1960s.

Another example, a little more personal. As a teenager graduating high school, I applied to US universities for a shot at the Ivy League. Nobody I knew had ever moved abroad for an education, and nobody had in the history of my high school. Having to do the research myself, I turned to web forums for guidance. I ended up on College Confidential, self-described as “the world’s largest college forums”. This is the place!, I thought to myself. This is where I’ll learn about what I need to do to get in, and how to structure my application.

As with Mumsnet: the place is chock full of absolute nutjobs. Take College Confidential’s word for it, and you’ll need a 5.0 GPA with a perfect SAT, a few patents, eight verifiable and quantified extracurricular activities, and perhaps some published papers just to sniff the Ivy League. Practically every post is high schoolers shitting themselves with anxiety or putting others down. Nobody believes in themselves, but they know that not getting in to Harvard is a death sentence for any hope of success in life.

I ended up ignoring College Confidential and didn’t have any issues. I imagine parenting is easier, too, without online hyperventilation about whether balloons are safe.

Why Do Neurotics Prevail In Online Communities?

Why do these communities end up dominated by weirdos? Especially the niche ones?

The reason is time. It is weirdos and neurotics that are most disposed to spending all their time posting online, so they end up generating the majority of the content.

Think about it. If you’re a successful parent, why would you spend hours a day on Mumsnet? Your kids are fine, and if your mental health is, too, you’ve probably got better things to do than spend your time on a web forum. If you’re a talented artist, you probably spend your time actually making art rather than discussing technique online. Top amateur athletes are too busy actually training and playing to spend five hours a day on a forum for their hobby.

The people actually taking action are walking the walk. The people talking are doing just that. And, given their lack of action, the talkers have more time to talk.

Most of the content is produced by the talkers, not the walkers. Some communities have adopted the term “keyboard warriors” to refer to those who are all theory and no practice. They end up dominating the discussion.

Another reason is that neuroticism is very compatible with the format of web forums. Remember the definition we used above? People with neurotic tendencies don’t fare too well in real-world scenarios, and so they take refuge in online communities. 4chan is famously proud of its “autists”.

You end up with two forces pushing neuroticism in web communities: the greater propensity of neurotics to post, and the suitability of web forums to neurotic personality traits.

Viral Neurosis

Online communities don’t just foster neuroticism; they make it go viral.

It would be fine if web forums provided a space for neurotics to communicate among one another. But remember how Mumsnet grew: the volume of content they had brought them to the top of every Google search for parenting. Remember how I found College Confidential: they were “the world’s biggest college forum”.

Neurotics spur the growth of online forums through pure volume of content. Regular people get dragged in to these communities through web searching.

You’re probably familiar with some version of this effect if you’ve done any research into something new. You’ll often unearth a new subreddit by doing a search for some technique or question. Or you’ll come across a niche web forum where someone asked the same question you have.

And at least half the answers are stress-inducing ‘solutions’ dripping with anxiety. Try again with a different question: same result, this time on another forum.

The regular person starts to ask themself: am I not worried enough? All these parents don’t let their kids go one block away from the house without supervision. All these kids have 5.0 GPAs and are getting Harvard rejections. All these guys are saying I’ll embarrass myself at pickup basketball until I’ve spent 10,000 hours shooting free throws by myself.

Some will turn away. I’m glad the teenage version of myself was able to do that with college applications. But some percentage, possibly a very high one, will get sucked in to the neurosis themselves. Perhaps they’ll sign up, and continue to read content in these forums. Repetition makes truth, and soon they’ll be thinking neurotically, too. They’ll start posting similar answers, to be found by the next unsuspecting web searcher. Repetition makes virulence.

The cycle repeats itself, and the neurosis spreads.

This is a basic memetic effect. The meme is neurotic thinking. Might it be the case that becoming anxious and stressed about one aspect of our lives carries over into others? Perhaps. Take a look at social media recently, and think about whether it’s becoming more or less neurotic. Especially since the election.

Be careful what you’re consuming. And don’t be a keyboard warrior.


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