The Viral Virus

Content mills turn out listicles and articles inviting us to assess our mental condition — and share it. When the mechanisms of social media tempt us to self-diagnose for attention, how can we tell when we are really afflicted?

AT its core, social media is a public pinboard of self-expression, a set of arenas where anything we post inevitably doubles as a signal of our identity. Sometimes this process is indirect — a link to a New York Times piece about Syrian refugees subtly informs people about your commitment to be informed. Other times it is explicit, as when you link to “19 Things Only Cat Owners Know to Be True” to inform everyone that you own a cat.

The more explicit mode of self-expression has led to the proliferation of identity-bait articles, cooked up not to be especially informative but to be shared as condensed bits of the whole you. These a la carte advertisements for oneself are meant to be specific enough to say something about a particular person but general enough to go viral: “10 Things Only Left-Handed People Will Understand,” for example. The nature of the humble-braggy "grievances" vary from topic to topic — a listicle about having large breasts might offer, “Bra shopping is hard, but at least you can fill out a cocktail dress!”; one about with insomnia will assert, “You’re tired all the time, but you can get so much work done!” — but each builds toward the same formulaic takeaway: “I’m X and I’m great!”

With all the opportunities social media offers to share, we are invited to proclaim as many of those Xs as we can. The potential dimensions of our personality are compounding exponentially as a result, with each offering us an ersatz community to belong to and take pride in. We’re using pre-packaged, shareable content to articulate everything from allergies and pet peeves to nuanced distinctions within and between categories like race, gender, sexuality, and mental health.

It’s here that listicle publishers cease to be merely viral fluff factories. The rise of mental-health listicles began with the Great Introversion Declaration of the summer of 2013, after Buzzfeed’s “31 Unmistakable Signs You’re an Introvert” went viral, triggering a flurry of copycat content. Seeing how popular it was to self-diagnose and publicize one's introversion, the Huffington Post asked users to similarly assess their anxiety levels, publishing “7 Easy Hacks To Help You Deal With Anxiety,” “You’re Just 5 Minutes Away From Being Anxiety Free” and “Will Anxious Parents Have Anxious Kids?” Around the same time, ABC News syndicated a piece titled “12 Signs You May Have an Anxiety Disorder” and Buzzfeed published “26 Problems Only Anxious People Will Understand" (which was followed less than a year later by “24 Problems Only Anxious People Will Understand”).

Judging by how often such pieces are shared, we’re all surrounded by anxiety-ridden introverts or convinced we’re anxiety-ridden introverts ourselves. But most of this content is only loosely tied to what it means to have anxiety or be an introvert.

When people use sharable content to affiliate themselves with mental-health conditions, it can help expand their visibility in a society that tends to suppress them. This can be empowering. It breaks down stigmas and opens lines of communication. But it can also be trivializing, particularly given the incentives social media provide users to spuriously lay claim to illnesses that only medical professionals are qualified to diagnose.

Because they are optimized for identity signaling rather than for being informative, these listicles tend to romanticize mental health conditions — anxiety is really just a pesky side effect of intelligence; introverts are people with rich interior lives who just hate surprise parties. It applies an attractive sheen to potentially concerning behaviors, boiling them down to overthinking or occasional antisociality. It broadens the definition of these conditions to allow anyone to claim them in exchange for sympathy or applause, increasing the chances they will get wider distribution in social media. 

It's clear why Buzzfeed and Huffington Post make this content: it drives clicks. But why do people share it? Self-diagnosis in the form of engagement with viral content becomes a successful personal-branding strategy. It is participatory catharsis (“Anxiety is so annoying, amirite?”) as well as a source of attention and praise (“Go me, I’m taking care of myself!”)

Identity-bait listicles invite readers to indulge a kind of cyberchondria for attention, a like-driven version of Munchausen syndrome. They propose a bare-minimum, pop-psychology-inflected definition of mental-health conditions, making them lowest-common-denominator enough to allow the broadest base of readers to identity with it and possibly share it. While this may raise awareness of a condition, it also raises the level of confusion about it.

There is a fine line between the breakdown of stigma and the distribution of toxic misinformation. Finding outlets for solidarity or publicly performing self-care can be therapeutic. But sharing a listicle is not a sufficient replacement for therapy. In some cases, it can make the truly afflicted seem like unserious attention-seekers. Just as the gluten-free fad can belie the seriousness of celiac disease, the dilution of what counts as anxiety can make it seem like the clinically anxious are just stressed out.

Lots of people worry, but generalized anxiety disorder is a specific condition with particular diagnostic criteria. More likely than not, someone actually suffering from anxiety will not be relieved to see their stressors catalogued as a series of bullet-pointed quips. At worst, they may be discouraged from seeking help if they are led to believe their struggles are something ordinary that everyone suffers from. How can you know for sure whether you have anxiety after probing the possibility online?

Pharmaceutical companies certainly hope to persuade you. Self-diagnosis on sites like WebMD can drive drug-company profits, and the site is well supported by the industry's ad dollars, as Vox recently reported. Eli Lilly once went so far as to rig a WebMD quiz on depression to suggest that anyone who took it was at risk of major depression. The wide net cast by personality-based listicle content works similarly, generating undue concern in order to engage the widest possible audience.

Clickbait listicles on mental health contribute to a fun-house mirror of self-expression that sets us all at an introspective disadvantage. Reading up on conditions can prompt us to imagine that we are actually suffering from them: Who among us hasn’t become convinced a cough was a sign of a malignant lung tumor after searching WebMD? With mental illnesses, which may lack measurable or disprovable physiological symptoms, the access to diagnostic information online sets up a torturous feedback loop: the search for the source of our worries inevitably incites additional worries. Hypochondria, after all, means “illness anxiety,” and no one benefits from a world in which everyone is anxious about having anxiety.

You can be stressed about achieving all of your life goals and not have generalized anxiety disorder. You can enjoy watching Netflix alone and still be a little bit of an extrovert. It’s complex! You’re complex. But viral social media doesn’t thrive on such complexities. The more we try to capture ourselves in the confines of shareable parameters, the further away we get from understanding who we are.