The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hive mind: Can we stop relying on the same dozen phrases for online conversations?

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Anyone who spends time on social media — or merely awake in this world — will recognize the now-standard phraseology of gathering input. It comes in the form of a solicitous apostrophe: “Hive mind! Seeking information on how to humanely euthanize baby birds.”

Okay, we’ll leave the bird bit out of it. It’s just that the tendency for people to express themselves in the same dozen or so phrases gets me down. A member of a hive — unless you’re the queen bee — is a drone. A drone does not think for itself. It has marching orders. I would never wish to have the input of someone who does not think for themselves, but if our language is any indication, we’re less able to do that every day.

You know some of the unavoidable standbys. Want a fun drinking game? (Provided you’re a skilled quaffer.) Take a sip of beer each time a talking head on TV says, “At the end of the day,” or “If I’m the Nationals,” never mind that they are one person, and not a 30-man roster. Notice how many faces now are described as “punchable,” as we aim to evaluate someone’s moral character based upon their most surface features (telling!). We have the person in the Facebook comments thread who must — for I am sure if you do this once, you do it 10,000 times — punctuate their self-own with a really-not-funny-anymore “asking for a friend.”

This is different from what we see with people who think there is either a “then” or a “than,” but not both, and that “penultimate” means “super-duper extra ultimate.”

A lot of these phrases attempt to convey a cooler-than-thou tone that further fractures us. They all possess the sad filament of passive-aggressiveness. “Sorry not sorry” is the digital adult version of “nanny nanny boo boo.” “Just sayin” is a typed-out way of signaling, “I’m taking my ball and going home.” To indicate that you never have doubt rather than the reality — that you are plagued by it — drop in an “amirite?” Even though it sounds like something aliens mine on the backside of Neptune.

Why do we do this? Part of it is the Internet, which makes us lazy, insecure and frightened — a dangerous troika. We don’t use the Internet to quickly access Van Gogh’s letters or listen to a Joy Division gig or find out what “perspicuous” means; we use it to have something to stare at instead of spending time with our own thoughts. Without introspective moments, we have fewer original thoughts, but life, being the ultimate form of a tide, never stops coming. Feelings never stop coming.

We depend on a cocky form of pushback to give those feelings the brushoff, because we lack the internal language to parse our problems. We become more anxious, more depressed, more detached, while masquerading as people who partake deeply of things.

But to partake deeply of anything, in a person-to-person or person-to-idea context requires exacting language. It’s hard to be clear! Doing so entails vulnerability, putting yourself on the line.

We can’t connect with other people when we are on autopilot. If you think about any great relationship in your life, what do you think of besides the love, the trust, the connection? Probably the hard work. All great relationships require effort to maintain.

When everyone speaks the same way, we become lost in plain view, despite craving connection, which is as human as any trait we possess. A bad habit becomes the foundation for an entire social identity. We have fear, too, that if we are seen making more effort than others, we might be ridiculed as “passionate” rather than absolved — and favorably vetted as “chill.”

It’s like a mountain climber who is rimrocked: stuck on a ledge and unable to move up or down. Bad social identities become fake connections. Fake connections lead to bad unions. Bad unions lead to unions being riven. All of it exists within a haze of unwellness. The fog that kills by keeping us existing, but not living.

But hey: Anything in this life that you choose to work at, you’ll get better at. Shoot 1,000 free throws every day, and you might not become Steph Curry, but you’ll improve. Same deal with language. Same deal with vulnerability. Same deal with any of the things I bet you really, penultimately — ha! — want.

Colin Fleming’s fiction appears in Harper’s, and he writes on many subjects for many venues. His next book is “Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls.”

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