The Internet of Every (Bad) Thing

Why Moist Nickelback Tickets Unite Us

I. “Moist” is the New Black

Some ideas—murder, terrorism, child abuse—are objectively bad. Others are generally accepted as “bad”: nails on a chalkboard, jello molds,“Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time.” There’s a distance between the inarguably terrible and subjectively annoying. Today, that distance runs along thin fiber-optic cable and across wireless signals.

In other words, some things are bad and some are internet bad.

This might amount to my worst Andy Rooney impression yet, so please bear with me. (For those too young to remember the “60 Minutes” commentator or his unruly eyebrows, here’s Rooney at his objectively most contrarian.) I first had this thought some years ago when friends were sending reflexive shivers down each other’s spines by repeating the word “moist.” The adjective was appended to progressively ickier nouns until someone triumphed with “panties.” But I was unshaken.

I wondered at first if there was something wrong with me. Perhaps I was a sociopath? But I’m not a monster. I mean, the word “poo” has always bothered me. Without that last consonant, it’s infinite. The works just flow unbounded.

Which brings me back to “moist.” I started this essay with a facile Google search: “moist as a bad word.” Of the 801,000 results, Mental Floss scored the first with a brief article called “The Science Behind Why People Hate the Word Moist.” The author points to a joint study conducted by researchers at Oberlin and Trinity University titled “An Exploratory Study of Word Aversion.” In brief, Mental Floss summarizes the findings:

The younger and more neurotic the study participants were, the more likely they were to dislike the word. Additionally, the more disgust they associated with bodily functions, the less they liked moist. People who found themselves particularly grossed out by thinking of things as moist may just be more likely to associate the word with sex, the researchers postulate.

This seems self-evident. As an analyst-in-training, I was particularly interested in the negative association to sex and body fluids. The idea that these clammy images are so repugnant made me think about the private and public life of squeamishness.

Sex and defecation undermine our sense of propriety and self-control. (Ever gambled with a fart and lost the bet?) But fundamental body processes are also essential to our early mental development—that is, if you give a shit about Freud. His idea is that the psyche (our mind) matures alongside and because of the soma (our body). In theory, children develop a sense of psychological self in relation to their biological self—through eating, puking, pissing, and shitting.

Put another way: before we can talk, we express our instincts and desires by sucking and pooping.

So why do connotations of these functions become gross in later life? This is, of course, too broad a question to answer in any brief essay. We’d have to point in part to the austere and puritanical roots of Western culture—the very societal factors against which Freud battled. (Say what we want about his theories now, he helped initiate frank, grounded conversations about sexuality and subjectivity.)

But what does this have to do with the internet? Sure, the internet is a repository for the very nouns with which the adjective “moist” is best connected. Without the internet, how would we learn about feats like the Cleveland Steamer™ or the Dirty Sanchez®? But beyond its surplus of sexual and scatological material, the web is also communicable—it spreads ideas like a virus.

The participants in the aforementioned study were recruited online and had a mean age of 35. Accordingly, one might extrapolate that they regularly use the internet—if not are savvy users. So as self-evident as one’s aversion to bodily fluids is or might be, another aspect of the study confirms my own suspicions about a broader concept: the unconscious impact of the internet on our tastes and opinions.

II. The Nickelback Phenomenon

The internet democratizes culture by virtually eradicating any barrier to entry (literally and figuratively). You can log in to good taste by subscribing to curated playlists on Spotify or newsletters from Refinery29. You can craft political opinions by following pundits on Twitter or downloading their podcasts on Overcast. You can keep pace with executive chefs on Serious Eats or Tasting Table.

This is a very good thing.

Information shared is information heard. Bands can build an audience before traveling thousands of miles to play for them. Kids in rural communities can dress as weird as they like. Foodies can host killer dinner parties without culinary degrees.

But… (There’s always a “but.”)

I’ve lately had the sense that the line between our personal opinions and collective beliefs has blurred. In other words, taste has become faith—a conviction without origin. These are the ideas, objects, and words that have come to stand for everything that is bad and negative in our lives.

The Internet of Every Bad Thing encompasses the conceptual effigies we flog in our imaginations—or share in Buzzfeed listicles. “Moist” might be an objectively unpleasant word, but it has taken on a life of its own (a damp, fetid life of its own). Thanks to the collective consciousness of social media and our potent instinct to expel our aggression, “moist” is a bugaboo.

Which raises the question of Nickelback.

I’m sure I could sing along to their biggest singles. I probably even heard “How You Remind Me” at the grocery store in the past week. And I can pick Chad Kroeger out of a lineup. But Nickelback rarely penetrates my consciousness. And I certainly don’t hate them—at least, not to the degree to which they’ve come to embody everything that’s terrible about music, culture, and Canada. I mean, I wouldn’t use “Photograph” to punish drunk drivers or anything.

Much has already been written about how and why people loathe Nickelback. Observer has a history of the band’s trajectory from unsigned act to the most successful hated band in the world. The New Yorker even has a piece that argues hating Nickelback only made them stronger. And we turn once again to Mental Floss, which examined the science behind why we hate Chad Kroeger and company.

Do we need to add anything else to the conversation? Probably not. But Medium is, after all, a democratic platform for opinions. And as we all know, opinions are like profiles: everyone’s got one.

Nickelback themselves aren’t all that important. I’m less interested in whether their songs are patently inauthentic, why liking them might disqualify one for public office, or that they had (or might still have) terrible hair. The salient point is less the band and more what they’re doing for us—psychologically.

The Nickelback Phenomenon is my transparent attempt at seeding a bad idea and hoping against hope that it flourishes—and, by proxy, annoys people like me. The Nickelback Phenomenon describes an innate desire to have a patsy in our mental toy box that we can bludgeon whenever we’re brimming with hatred. Other common stooges might include: New Jersey, small talk, clowns, “hipsters,” or Guy Fieri.

I’m not saying any or all of these things aren’t necessarily bad. I’m more curious about the “universal recipient” aspect of topics like “moist” and Nickelback, those receptacles for our blood-boiling rage. (N.B.: Save for New Jersey, I’m ambivalent about the mass hatred directed at these cultural totems. New Jersey is great—and will be even better once Chris Christie moves on to sports broadcasting.)

So as powerful a tool as the internet is, it’s a dehumanizing domain where annoyances and grievances are not only celebrated but also elicited. Social media is a forum where our fundamental somatic messiness—the literal blood, sweat, and tears of life—become a foundation on which to build idle connections and play out our most childish impulses.

Which brings about another psychoanalytic theory of note: projection. Briefly, projection happens when one attributes unwanted aspects of him or herself to someone else (usually unconsciously). Ever have an acquaintance tag you with the very behavior you dislike in him? That’s him projecting, say, his insecurity on to you. Denial often happens alongside this process. So, not only is this person criticizing you for being arrogant, he’s also denying he ever felt any underlying insecurity in the first place.

So given that we’re innately aggressive, I wonder if we collectively use Nickelback (or insert other useful idiots) as receptacles for those very feelings, desires, and behaviors we want to deny in ourselves. Chad Kroeger is the frosted tips we had in high school, the bad jeans we wore in college, and the bland ideas that fill our journals. Nickelback is the moist undercarriage of our worst selves.

After all, we love to hate. And thanks to Nickelback, we can hate together.