Thomas Chatterton Williams:

Today, we are all walking around with the means of recording and broadcasting things that would never have been disseminated in the past. The world may have always been this strange, but the constant act of bearing witness to all that craziness is something novel and disruptive indeed.

Earlier this year, I suggested that, by magnifying and amplifying the stories and events most likely to trigger outrage and despair, people were doing the intellectual equivalent of carelessly coughing and sneezing. In a very limited, non-New Age sense, we do create our own reality, and we all know people who have spent far too much time in the funhouse mirror environment of social media to be capable of coherent conversation anymore. More recently, I complained that our omnipresent media was making it impossible to productively forget things, and Williams seems to be getting at a similar point. Formerly, craziness might have asphyxiated in the vacuum of social isolation. Bizarre opinions or obsessions might have been overlooked with a polite cough and a change of subject. Cranks who refused to take the hint would have found themselves increasingly speaking in soliloquies.

Now, through the safe distance of a smartphone screen, craziness is another way to accrue status points, by being the first in your peer group to call attention to another crank with an unhinged opinion. People who would undoubtedly find the old practice of paying a shilling to observe the lunatics in Bedlam problematic seem to have no qualms about reinventing the practice for our age, which only incentivizes more desperate attempts for viral validation. In a culture which increasingly blurs the line between fame and infamy, any attention is good as long as they spell your Twitter handle right. Rather than allowing craziness to dissipate and be deservedly forgotten, our technology gives us the Gorgon-like power to turn it to stone, littering the intellectual landscape with monuments to crassness and stupidity from which we learn nothing, pointing and giggling like simpletons instead.