Love to loathe you, baby
Jillian Sanders frequently visits the Facebook page of a high school classmate she hasn’t talked to in years. But these drop-ins, more like recon missions, are not entirely pleasant.
‘‘I don’t know why it infuriates me,’’ said Sanders, 31, a freelance book publicist. ‘‘She’ll often describe, say, how her favourite ice cream flavour makes her happy all day. I feel like she’s lying. I get upset watching people post pictures of a rainbow that says ‘I believe in magic’ — upset that they’re projecting that image and thinking others are falling for it, or that they’re falling for it themselves. Maybe I’m just jealous.’’
Zeke Farrow, 38, can identify with the impulse. He sometimes virtually checks in on a friend with whom he had an acrimonious falling-out years ago.
‘‘I don’t know why else I’d go to his page except in the hope that I’ll see something bad or narcissistic,’’ said Farrow, a screenwriter based in Los Angeles. ‘‘I want to see him prove his own behaviour, because he can’t help it. So if you’re already expecting it before you go to their page, it’s a joyous confirmation.’’
The New York author David Goodwillie, 41, spreads out his joyous confirmations among a varied ensemble.
‘‘There are more than a dozen people I would and should block on Facebook,’’ he said. ‘‘But I’m so astounded and enthralled by their constant posting that I stay friends with them just to see if they’re going to post for the 12th time this week about their book or their baby.’’
These individuals are hate-reading. Hate-reading, usually of social media, provides satisfaction from fury-fuelled engagement with someone who should theoretically not provide it. Our motives rarely come from a position of strength, as Katie J.M. Baker, a writer for Jezebel website, described in her exploration of hate-reading the internet.
‘‘I usually hate-read alone, late at night when I’m procrastinating, drunk, bored or all three,’’ she wrote.
‘‘When I finally walk away from my computer, I feel like I’ve just binged on a butter-sogged bag of popcorn before the movie even started. I’m slightly nauseated, but still can’t help licking my fingers for more fatty flavour.’’ Baker concluded her essay with a vow to go ‘‘cold turkey’’, as ‘‘hate-reading satisfies my negative energy, but it leaves me with little more than a false sense of both security and productivity’’.
Or, as she said in an interview (after acknowledging she wasn’t able to swear off the habit completely): ‘‘The practice became way less satisfying after I realised that I was hate-reading to feel superior to other people.’’
Her self-assessment may be a more enlightened version of the findings from Alexander H. Jordan, an adjunct assistant professor of business administration at Dartmouth College in the US.
In a Stanford study suggesting we underestimate negative emotion in others’ lives (a misjudgment exacerbated by the cheery cast of most social-media personae), he and his co-authors wrote: ‘‘Some research suggests that downward emotional comparisons can improve people’s well-being.’’
‘‘It’s when a person’s typically rosy self-view is temporarily threatened that self-enhancement processes, such as finding people to ‘hate’ online, are triggered,’’ Jordan said in an interview.
‘‘Research has also shown that people who are chronically unhappy or low in self-esteem are more concerned about social comparisons, upward or downward, in general.’’ So, a common way to boost one’s ego through ‘‘emotion regulation strategy’’, he said, ‘‘is to look down on other people, such as reading a dumb blog to feel smarter or looking at photos to feel more stylish or a dramafilled Facebook page that might make you feel you’re well adjusted’’.
It’s not schadenfreude, he noted, it’s more akin to gloating.
Worse, these sad, insecure people (in other words, most of humanity, at one time or another) descend into ‘‘unhealthy feedback loops’’, he said.
‘‘People look around at others’ ‘perfect lives’ on Facebook, feel bad about themselves, boost their self-regard by putting out their own ‘perfect lives’ and/or hatereading others’ pages, and then their ‘perfect lives’ make others feel bad about their own lives in turn.’’
When the target is an outright nemesis, it makes sense that one might hate-read him or her. But what about that nebulous grey area so many in our circle occupy?
The TV critic Emily Nussbuam wrote about hate-watching the show Smash for The New Yorker: ‘‘Why would I go out of my way to watch a show that makes me so mad? On some level, I’m obviously enjoying it. Maybe I secretly love Smash, at least in that slap-in-theface Moonlighting way.’’
Nussbaum may be speaking to a more humane motive in hate-reading those we know intimately. Perhaps there’s a recognition that even the people we despise are inextricably tethered to us, and that when they’re no longer part of our lives, we still feel a sense of loss, and so we continue to keep tabs on them.
Lauren Schnipper, 34, head of production and development for Shane Dawson TV in Los Angeles, falls into this category of love-hate-reader.
‘‘I definitely hide certain people’s news feeds, but every now and again I go on them or check them out on Twitter,’’ she said. ‘‘I still miss and think about these people, once in a while, but then it gives me some satisfaction for why they’re not in my life anymore and makes me feel better.’’
Schnipper’s response isn’t far off from one of the most sentimental haters in all of literature: Holden Caulfield.
At the end of The Catcher In The Rye, he nostalgically name-checks a string of phonies and tormentors whom he has railed against for his entire monologue: ‘‘I sort of miss everybody I told about. Even old Stradlater and Ackley, for instance. I think I even miss that goddam Maurice. It’s funny.
‘‘Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.’’
After criticising the hollow falseness of bourgeois society, Holden seems to recognise in this epiphany that he has been unhealthily engaging in his own emotion regulation strategy to counter his chronic alienation.
Call it ‘‘hate-telling’’.