Humans evolved to seek out sugar because it was a scarce source of energy. But when we learned how to produce sugar on an industrial scale, our love for sweet things went from an evolutionary asset to a liability. The same is now true of data. In an age of information overabundance, our curiosity, which once focused us, now distracts us. And the insatiable appetite for distraction is ruining the minds of both content creators and their audiences.
The analogy between information and sugar is not just a pretty metaphor. A 2019 study by Berkeley researchers found that new information can act on the brain’s dopamine-producing reward system in the same way as food, whether or not the acquired information is useful. Put simply, the brain treats the receipt of new information as a reward in itself, and can grow to crave it for its own sake, regardless of its quality.
For hundreds of millennia, this wasn’t a problem, because on the plains of the savanna, or in the depths of the jungle, information was as scarce and precious as honey. But this all changed with the rise of the printing press, industrialized societies, and, of course, the Internet.
We now live in what might be called an attention economy, full of actors seeking to draw our interest by any means possible. Since low-quality information is just as effective at satisfying our information-cravings as high-quality information, the most efficient means of getting our attention is by mass-producing low-quality “junk info”—a kind of fast food for one’s brain. Like real fast food, junk info is cheap to produce and pleasing to consume, but also high in additives and low in nutritional value. It’s also potentially addictive and, if consumed excessively, dangerous.
Junk info is often false info. But it isn’t junk because it’s false. It’s junk because it doesn’t make your life better, and it doesn’t improve your understanding of the world. All it offers is distraction.
Common types of junk info include gossip, clickbait, hackery, conspiracy theories, and babble. The cheapness and addictiveness of this kind of low-quality content has allowed it to dominate the web. It’s always within easy reach of netizens, and millions of people are now hooked on it. It’s why they endlessly scroll their Twitter timelines or check their Instagram notifications, or repeatedly click refresh on YouTube’s homepage.
Such forms of mindless browsing not only fail to improve one’s understanding of the world, but they can actually hinder it. Recent research (summarized in the video below) suggests that people scrolling social media tend to experience what’s called “normative dissociation,” a phenomenon whereby they become less aware and less able to process information, to such an extent that they often can’t recall what they just read.
But despite being “empty calories,” junk info still tastes delicious. Since your dopamine pathways can’t distinguish between useful and useless info, consuming junk info gives you the satisfaction of feeling like you’re learning—it offers the illusionof getting smarter—even though essentially all you’re doing is shoving popcorn into your skull.
Eventually, the addiction to useless info leads to what I call “intellectual obesity.” Just as gorging on junk food bloats the body, so gorging on junk info bloats the mind, filling it with a cacophony of half-remembered gibberish that sidetracks your attention and confuses your senses. Each morsel of sugary content you consume whets your appetite for more—and as you consume more, you learn less and think less. The result is that your consciousness becomes clogged; you develop atherosclerosis of the mind.
Millions of us are now perpetually distracted by junk info. Some spend their days cheerleading for their team in the unwinnable online culture war, entertaining themselves with wild caricatures of their opponents’ supposed evils, and in so doing immersing themselves ever deeper into a one-sided view of the world. Others spend their days binge-watching the carefully choreographed “lives” of their favorite influencers on TikTok or YouTube, mistaking the artificial world on display for the real thing, neglecting their own comparatively bleak lives until the only joy they experience is vicarious.
This kind of binge-like behavior is comparable to “emotional eating,” the habitual consumption of comfort-food as a coping mechanism to avoid the stress of reality. But what makes an addiction to junk info more destructive than traditional food-binging is that it doesn’t just destroy the health of its consumers, but also that of its producers.
Since producing junk info is the easiest way for aspiring influencers to gain a following, it’s how many of them start off their online careers. The problem is that once they begin along this path, it becomes almost impossible for them to stop, because they quickly find themselves locked with their newly acquired audiences in a feedback loop of mutual addiction and corruption that I call “symbiotic stupidity.”
Essentially, the influencer produces content that feeds audience members’ addiction to junk info. In turn, the audience offers the influencer praise, which feeds his (or her) addiction to approval and attention. The more the influencer feeds his followers’ appetite for junk, the more they feed his ego. This cycle of mutual reinforcement drives both the influencer and the audience into an obsessive state. The eventual fate of the audience is that they become intellectually obese. But the fate of the influencer is often more extreme.
As the influencer focuses on producing more of the specific flavor of junk info that his audience seems to crave most, he falls deeper into a niche. This niche quickly becomes the influencer’s distinct brand. Like all brands, it’s an artificial construct. And yet, as the brand becomes more familiar than the human projecting it—both to the audience and to the influencer himself—it also comes to be regarded by both as more authentic. Thus, in order to retain a sense of fidelity to himself and his audience, the influencer must continue to play the character he’s created, offering the same flavor of junk info again and again. In this way, the persona hijacks the person, and the influencer becomes a puppet of his audience.
The podcaster Eric Weinstein dubbed this process “audience capture.” And its effects are starkly illustrated by the strange case of Ukrainian-American Internet celebrity Nicholas Perry, known to the world as Nikocado Avocado.
Perry’s story begins in 2016, when the classically trained musician, then 24 years old, focused on becoming an influencer. His ambitions led him to start uploading YouTube videos in which he extolled the virtues of veganism and pursued his musical passion—playing the violin. But to his frustration, he went largely unnoticed.
A year later, Perry abandoned veganism, citing health concerns. Now free to eat whatever he wanted, he began uploading videos of himself consuming various dishes while talking to the camera, as if having dinner with a friend. In this way, he became part of the video craze known as mukbang—which translates from Korean as “eating broadcast.”
Perry’s new videos quickly found a sizable audience. But as the audience grew, so did its demands. The comments section became filled with people challenging Perry to eat as much as he could. Eager to please, he began to set himself torturous challenges, each bigger than the last. His audience applauded, but always demanded more. Soon, he was filming himself eating entire menus of fast-food restaurants in one sitting.
In some respects, all his eating paid off: Nikocado Avocado “blew up” online, as the expression goes, amassing almost seven million subscribers across six YouTube channels. But the cost of this was that he also blew up in a more literal manner.
Nikocado, molded by his audience’s desires into a cartoonish extreme, is now very different from the vegan violinist who first started making videos. Where Perry was mild-mannered and health conscious, Nikocado is loud, abrasive, and physically grotesque. Where Perry was a picky eater, Nikocado devoured everything he could, including, in a sense, Perry himself.
He and his audience are now locked in symbiotic stupidity; just as he was driven by his audience toward physical obesity, now he in turn drives his audience further toward intellectual obesity, compelling them to watch, share, and like as he eats himself to an early grave.
Perry’s transformation is particularly striking because it affected his physical appearance. But even in less outwardly obvious cases, the metamorphosis from human being to online caricature can be unsettling to observe.
Consider Louise Mensch, a former British Conservative MP and writer who in 2016 published a viral story (much of which was later debunked) about Donald Trump’s alleged ties to Russia. She subsequently gained a huge online audience of people fiercely opposed to Trump. Pressured by her new followers to uncover more evidence of Trump’s corruption, Mensch began to find patterns in pure noise, concocting increasingly speculative conspiracy theories about Trump and Russia (including the claim that Vladimir Putin assassinated Andrew Breitbart, the founder of Breitbart News, so his job could go to Trump ally Steve Bannon). When Mensch’s former allies expressed concern over her new trajectory toward fringe theories, she accused them of being shills of Putin or Trump. In the end, the only people she didn’t regard as shills were members of her junk-addicted audience, and together they continued to radicalize each other even after the mainstream media had abandoned the Russiagate narrative.
Another, more recent, victim of audience capture is Maajid Nawaz. A former Islamist who’d renounced his old ways, Nawaz made a name for himself as a fiery but rational counterextremist. Unfortunately, the pandemic led him back into radicalism, albeit of a different type. His descent began with him posting a few vague theories about COVID being a hoax perpetrated on an unsuspecting public. After those went viral, he found himself inundated with new “COVID-skeptical” followers who showered him with praise and new leads to chase.
In January, after Nawaz lost his position at the UK radio show LBC due to his unsubstantiated claims of a secretive, globalist “new world order,” he implied his firing was part of a conspiracy to silence the truth, and urged his loyal followers to subscribe to his Substack, as this was now his family’s only source of income. His new audience proved to be generous with both money and attention, and his need to meet their expectations seems to have spurred him, whether consciously or unconsciously, to double down on his more extreme views. His recent work is his wildest yet, combining common conspiracist tropes such as resurrected Nazi eugenics programs, satanic rituals, and the Bilderbergers. Among the “evidence” he now relies on is numerology.
There is obvious value in investigating unaccountable global organizations. But Maajid and his audience are no longer in a position to do this, because their symbiotic stupidity has filled their heads with junk info and cost them their objectivity and credibility. Instead of performing real investigations, Maajid is now merely performing the role of investigator for his audience, a role that requires drama rather than diligence, and which can lead only to his audience’s desired conclusions.
Ultimately, it’s probably impossible for influencers to not be at least partly reshaped by their audiences. As social animals, we develop our identities by viewing ourselves through the eyes of others. But although content creators can’t choose to not be influenced, they can choose who they’re influenced by. If they put effort into producing thoughtful and measured content from the get-go, and resist the quick and easy path of mass-producing junk info, they’ll cultivate an audience whose expectations encourage the influencer to maintain high standards of thought and creativity instead of devolving into self-parody.
Audiences, too, can improve the information landscape, since a simple way to discourage influencers from producing junk info is for the rest of us to stop consuming it. Most of us have standards for what we allow into our bodies, so we should likewise have standards for what we allow into our minds.
The online ecosystem is built on the exploitation of human instincts. So if you blindly follow your cravings, you’ll become trapped in an algorithmically-enforced symbiosis that can rob you—as well as those you listen to—of perspective, agency, and even identity. The bait for this trap is always within arm’s reach, and it will surely taste good for a while. But if you value yourself, it should be staunchly resisted, because the more you consume it, the more it will consume you.