The Internet is a compendium of broken and distorted souls: the blogs, journals, webcams, personal ads. Out there, self-exposure is no longer a niche activity, but a preoccupation that’s slowly colonizing the Internet, site by site. Let’s start with a text I recently saw online: 942422998 I tricked a good friend into betraying me so that I would have someone to hate other than myself. The post is one of 176,961 anonymous confessions currently on view at www.grouphug.us. Launched in October of 2003, the website attracted more than thirteen million hits in its first three months. As of the writing of this piece, nearly 8,000 posts await approval from at least three readers—any three—who happen to feel like moderating. It’s a public affair, though there are rules. As a moderator, you must understand the purpose of the site, which is, ostensibly, to provide relief, camaraderie, and perspective to the confessants, and hours of reading pleasure to the rest of us (cf. 907626756 i can’t stop reading through these confessions and hoping one of them will be someone confessing they love me). You must flag obnoxious formatting. You must weed out the pomp, gratuitous vulgarity, hate speech, and contact info. You must know the difference—and here is the trick—between a legitimate confession and horseshit.
About sixty-five thousand posts have been rejected so far, though it’s impossible to know why case by case. Certainly evaluation is a dicey business. Who’s to say what constitutes a confession? The homepage offers some guidance: to confess—v. to make confession; to disclose sins or faults. Okay, so confession means to disclose a sin, but what’s sin? Judging by the posts on grouphug.us, to sin is to do bad. But it is also to think bad regardless of the outcome. Grouphug is big—huge—on the sin without referent. While a lot of people confess to behaving badly, just as many confess to wanting to behave badly. In the eyes of the public moderating itself, bad thoughts and bad deeds are on par, so long as the confessant feels bad about them.
670862493 My sister used to be in a severely abusive relationship and throughout the entire time I stood by her and helped her through. We became extremely close. Now that she is out of the relationship she doesn’t need me around anymore and I sometimes wish she would be in that situation again so I can be around her.
Guilt is the big winner on grouphug.us. In the context of the site, few emotions are as potent. Or as rich. And this makes sense. After all, remorse is a mainstay of our penal system, not to mention the armature of Catholic dogma since the Lateran Council codified the sacrament of the penance in 1215. Remorse is a benchmark for rehabilitation, and one of the few emotions than can actually mollify judge and jury alike. During a murder trial, we often hear about the killer’s disposition. He sat impassive. He betrayed no emotion. He showed no remorse! At some point in the evolution of tragedy, guilt begins to proxy for the thing lost, the thing damaged. The criminal can’t bring back the dead, but he can offer remorse. Remorse as payment. Western pedagogy—religious and secular—has given “remorse as payment” the cultural imprimatur; and the upshot is that guilt is rampant. And costly.
329866569 I’m a thief. People tell me I’m beautiful, but all I can do is resent them and say they’re lying. I’m weak. I don’t take care of myself. I have sex because I feel unwanted and it feels so nice just to be held and be a part of someone… then I feel like shit, but I never learn. So I guess I’m stupid too. I’m envious. I’m fake. I’m a liar. I hurt others. I drive away those who I care for the most. I lost at life.
So just what kind of person visits grouphug? The National Institute of Mental Health offers a downloadable booklet on depression complete with checklists and photos of people in the bloom of their lives. According to the brochure, about twenty million Americans suffer from depression. Symptoms are myriad, but generally include some fixed ideas about guilt: My life is undeserved; I will pay for it. C.f., 329866569, the one who feels stupid and envious, fake and weak, and compelled to confess as much. Feeling bad about nothing is the cornerstone of depressive ideology. As is the idea that problems can be redressed through suffering. Trouble is, the logic of “suffering as payment” exalts self-censure as if it were punishment enough; and anyone who knows guilt knows this is not true. Self-indictment is child’s play. Hence the tautology that keeps misery alive: Guilt without cause can’t attract the retribution it seeks; and when it goes unpunished, it grows.
In Nietzsche’s “Guilt, ‘Bad Conscience,’ and the Like,” the argument is as follows: 1.) We exist only through the sacrifices of our forbearers and, as a result, owe them sacrifices of our own. 2.) As debtors, we suffer to satisfy our creditors, and we suffer without end because the debt is irredeemable. 3.) The rapport between creditor and debtor is symbiotic: guilt pays off the creditor but also keeps him alive. It exculpates and multiplies so that while we are debtors because He is our creditor, He is our creditor because we are debtors. The logic keeps with the provisos of theism—He died for our sins—but also concedes the anachronism of repentance: that we repent without cause in order to create a cause for which we can repent.
The argument is more nuanced than this, but even the gist attests to the difficulty of locating truth in guilt, since guilt itself might be fabricated as means to an end. In which case the vetting guidelines offered by grouphug begin to seem a little dim.
878616985 I want to be really fucked up mentally. You’d think this would make me fucked up. But I don’t think I am nearly as crazy as I wish I were. If I were insane, I wouldn’t have anyone in my way.
The Fifth Amendment protects thought and forbids self-incrimination, which suggests, obliquely, that thought is unreliable when it comes to confession—that when we confess, we might be also be lying. Of course, the Constitution was not designed to provide for the psychology of depressive guilt, and it doesn’t. As a result, we have things like the Miranda laws, though they have become increasingly contentious and nominal in terms of how well they protect our rights, mostly because when your thoughts are on trial all bets are off.
Peter Brooks has a wonderful book on this subject, Troubling Confessions, in which he considers the ambivalence and indeterminacy of the truth of confessions, voluntary or otherwise. As he puts it, “How can someone make a false confession? Precisely because the false referentiality of confession may be secondary to the need to confess.” And further, that the false confession may not be a lie, “in that its definition of the truth corresponds to [an] order of desire and self-conception,” which says: I am evil, therefore when I confess to doing evil, it is only so that you will believe I am evil. Somewhere in this logic, the deed—the crime—is lost entirely.
The consequences can be grave. In Colorado, for instance, any convicted sex offender can face up to life in prison, depending on the outcome of various tests, chief among them the plethysmograph. Here’s how it works: a guy gets put in a room with tv and headphones; he is shown innocent pictures of adults and children, while being made to hear an explicit audio track. The plethysmograph is supposed to tell us whether the guy is thinking: Boy, I’d like to have that preteen. Or: Look at the pretty children! How does the PG know? It records penile girth. Still unclear? If you have an erection while listening to a little girl asking you to orgasm on her breasts, then you are extremely likely to rape a little girl in real life. PG data in hand, a judge reviews the results and decides whether the convict can or cannot be reformed. (Incidentally, the plethysmograph was developed by the Czechs to prevent young men from avoiding the draft by claiming they were gay.)
The plethysmograph is stupid and cruel, to be sure. But it is also like grouphug in that it shores up the depressive paradigm, the idea that thoughts and feelings are liable and, by extension, subject to punishment without end. So much for Justice Coke who in 1609 argued that no judge can examine any man “upon the intention and thought of his heart.” And so much for the boon to mental illness once brought on by a willingness to tackle the problem.
810621917 I sit at my desk at work eating artisan baked loaves and handmade cheeses so people will think that I am better than them. I eat like an animal without any discretion when I’m on my own.
According to alexa.com (which records web traffic), grouphug’s monthly activity keeps pace with The New York Review of Books‘s website. It kills the NEA’s website. The New York Philharmonic’s. And it almost keeps up with www.1freepornfinder.com. Soon, it might even surpass it. Why? Because as I’ve said, the logic of guilt is to sustain itself by always creating someone before whom to say: I am guilty. Nietzsche: “The ‘bad conscience’ as the womb of all ideal and imaginative phenomena, also brought to light an abundance of strange new beauty and affirmation, and perhaps beauty itself.” In other words, a site like grouphug, as a creditor-debtor forum, encourages role-play so that every confessant gets the chance to suffer and to embody “ideal phenomena“: juror, reader, priest, comrade. No wonder Internet culture is increasingly hermetic; no wonder it appeals to the loneliest among us. Here, we can expose ourselves and watch as punishment and reward and punishment again is ours for the taking. It’s a sad state of affairs for the depressives among us, but then again, the depressives among us will always cling to anything that keeps the illness alive.