The Current Thing
Exhibit 1: “RussiaGate” and the Mueller Investigation
Exhibit 2: Black squares on Instagram
Exhibit 3: People wearing masks on their Facebook profile pictures
Exhibit 4: Ukrainian flags in their username
(Etc, etc, etc)
What do all of these have in common? They are all different manifestations of one particular phenomena. The phenomena itself isn’t exactly new, but the internet and social media have enabled an accelerated and intensified version of it. It has been dubbed by some online as *The Current Thing*. What characterizes *The Current Thing* is a cycle of sorts. It starts by instantly taking the world by storm. It is trending on Twitter, all over the news, and the subject of conversations everywhere. It keeps its captivating magic for a short period, keeping the public consciousness in rapture. Depending on how quickly a new candidate for a *The Current Thing* event comes along, it may linger for a time, or be replaced quickly. In either case, something else comes along to take its place, the old *The Current Thing* is forgotten, and thus the cycle continues.
Of course, it is within the nature of newsworthy events that individual happenings will be discussed for a time, and eventually fades into something else. This social mechanic is neither new nor exclusive. However, *The Current Thing* is very different from just ordinary news. Whenever *The Current Thing* arrives, it is not just the thing happening now, it is the only thing. It is the sole object of one’s attention and focus. All other news fades into the background of the background, and *The Current Thing* takes center stage as the lead role in a solo performance. What was the previous *The Current Thing*? Out of sight and out of minds for all. So it goes.
Some the ways in which people commonly engage with *The Current Thing* are with the examples above. They act as both a method of interacting with the current thing as well as functioning as a “pledge of allegiance”. This has the benefit of demonstrating not only one’s own loyalty to *The Current Thing*, but also assists in finding others of a similar persuasion. It also stems from the importance that it holds in the minds of those engaged with *The Current Thing*. Given that it is the only object of one’s attention, it seems natural that some kind of interaction with it would occur.
When a *The Current Thing* arrives, it almost always happens suddenly. Rarely will there be a slow build-up to its promotion to superstar-status. Rather, it appears like a strike of lightning and is here whether we like it or not. It remains for a while, and is eventually replaced by something else. But while it is here, it is the only thing here. Likewise, as soon as new *The Current Thing* comes along, the discarded thing is just as quickly forgotten.
Why does this curious cycle occur? Specifically, why does *The Current Thing* arrive suddenly and completely disappears as soon as something else takes its place? This can’t be because of any true principled interest in a newsworthy event. If it was, that interest would remain even after something else has come along. Its relevancy would undoubtably dimmish over time, but it would not be totally forgotten altogether. The only explanation that accounts for the qualities of *The Current Thing* is that this temporary attachment is not a result of the people’s own intellectual faculties, but the influence of another actor. It is implanted by someone else, not an independently held belief.
This implantation is precisely why *The Current Thing* arrives suddenly and is later forgotten. It is because its presence is contingent on a flow of information from an external source. As soon as that source changes the content of the message, the message as it exists in the mind of the individual under its sway changes with it. Their beliefs, views, and opinions are purely the product of someone else. When the flow of information coming to them changes, their minds change in conjunction with it. This represents not only a proclivity to importing the thoughts of someone else, but the inability to generation thoughts for oneself. The reason why new information flows so easily in and out of the minds of *The Current Thing* participants is because there is so little intellectual friction with any existing content.
While *The Current Thing* phenomenon is not new (The War in Iraq is an older example), the internet has enabled it on an accelerated level. Will it continue to exist in the future? Perhaps the better question is whether or not it has any reason to stop. The reason why we as fallible human beings can be so susceptible to propaganda is because we are being told things that we want to believe. As long as the *The Current Thing* lies within the existing mental framework and tendencies of individuals, they will not only allow themselves to be intellectually manipulated, but will be willing participants in the entire process. But again, this phenomenon is not new. Propaganda and information manipulation has been used in this way far before the modern technological world. For instance, the German people were susceptible to propaganda about the actions of the Jewish people in causing them to lose the First World War because it allowed them to keep hold of their misconceptions that they were the superior military power. They wanted to believe it, so when they were presented with the opportunity to, they naturally took it.
Fundamentally, *The Current Thing* is not ultimately the product of the internet, the 24/7 news cycle, modern media, etc., but ultimately the product of this base factor of human nature. People have particular things that they wish to believe are true. We would rather have our beliefs vindicated than forced to change them. Nobody is excepted from this fact. More importantly, this element of human psychology can always be taken advantage of. The modern information landscape has merely allowed for this at a much quicker and larger scale. Whereas news used to only travel as quickly as a horse could ride, it now happens in real-time. As such, the manipulation of this news can happen in real-time as well.
Will we have more iterations of *The Current Thing*? — Probably.
Will people become more aware of this phenomenon and think more critically? — Probably not.
Will increased technocritization of aspects of our lives accelerate this phenomenon? — Probably.
Will we find an easy fix to all of this? — Probably not.