Like the rest of the world, when I saw Will Smith striking Chris Rock live during the Oscars, I was in shock. I couldn’t quite believe what was happening. But alongside this shock was another feeling that I have started to become accustomed to in big pop culture moments: a creeping sense of dread blunted by a heavy dose of preempted irritation. “The discourse tomorrow is going to be fucking unbearable,” I thought.
Go back fifteen, ten, even, five years ago, most people wouldn’t understand what ‘Discourse™’ actually meant, let alone find themselves sick of it whenever an event that captures the timeline’s attention unfolded. But there’s actually a term for that feeling where you find yourself fed up with the way online spaces swoop in and dissect an event before they even have.
That feeling of premature annoyance at the flood of memes and completely ridiculous takes that would come from the slap is something writer and internet culture expert Ryan Broderick identified as “viral pre-exhaustion.” People hadn’t even started discussing ‘The Slap’ yet and we were already tired of it, and the truth is, that’s because we know this kind of event’s life cycle on social media all too well.
Social media platforms like Twitter have helped us engage more intimately with the world and others than ever before, but along with these gifts, it has also cursed many of us with this inability to, in short, shut the fuck up. We’ve all developed our own little hives and eco-systems, surrounded ourselves with like-minded people, and are acutely aware, especially in an age of cancel culture, that everything we say isn’t to a void, but to an audience.
You’d think that would make people more careful on what exactly they speak up on, or at least mindful of the fact that just because they can express an opinion on everything that happens in the world, that doesn’t mean that they should.
But unfortunately, we’ve instead gone mad with the power of a potential worldwide audience at our fingertips. There are countless, prolific social media users who have built a profile solely based on their ability to stick their oar into subjects that don’t concern them. Scrolling through the timeline, we’ve seen people go from virologists to international relations experts in a matter of months: never qualified, but speaking with the confidence and authority of someone who is.
In part, you can say these kinds of people are products of the environment social media fosters. If you’re flooded with enough Instagram infographics saying that “not enough people are talking about issue X,” or witness pile-on after pile-on because a public figure’s silence on issue X is somehow problematic, you may well begin to feel pressure to speak up on every little thing that happens in the world. With Twitter being a platform stripped of nuance, where everyone is waiting for that next “gotcha” moment, giving your hot take on every single issue may well seem like the only way to avoid that.
But as I said, while this may well be the case for some people, for many, it’s simply because their echo-chamber has given them an inflated sense of self-importance which leads to them imparting their hot takes on every little thing that happens. And when literally millions of Twitter users out there all have that mindset; it’s not surprising that we soon find ourselves saturated with opinions, memes, and takes that, quite literally, not a single person asked for.
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We’ve seen it all: from people comparing the slap to the Ukraine crisis, to Will and Jada both being accused of abusing each other. There’s also been a hell of a lot of misinformation, both with the nature of alopecia, and with claims that Chris Rock could have been killed by the bitch slap.
The Nancy Drews of the internet have even spread conspiracy theories that the whole saga was faked (complete with photoshopped pictures of Rock wearing a cheek pad). And that’s before we even get into the grimace-worthy memes and sketches by self-styled comedians who jump on every pop culture moment like flies on dog shit.
Thousand words right now when Will Smith slaps Chris Rock pic.twitter.com/O31850Qx74
— Reda (@RedaMor_) March 28, 2022
The bottom line is that the slap, and our reaction to it, tells us a lot more about just the slap — it tells us that sometimes the best contribution you can give to a discourse is by contributing nothing at all.
Maybe Barry from Ipswich thinks the world would be worse off without him announcing to us that he has now lost respect for Will Smith, but I can assure him that the world will keep on spinning and neither I, nor Smith, are likely to lose sleep over his comments.