On the Internet, Everyone Else Is a Ghost

Few of us online share the same “now”. That’s a problem.

We think of the Internet as a continuous state of connectedness, but on the Internet few of us share the same “now”.

The AWS servers share “now”.

Chartbeat tracks “now”.

The things that count “concurrent users” and “load” track “now”.

But we, individuals, experience the Internet in discrete batches. While you’re reading, I’m commenting, or vice versa.

This is one of the reasons why we like things like Slack and iMessage — because they present a longer “now”.

Consider: Slack’s “several people are typing” extends your temporal window of “now”. It makes you think “oh, now is still happening.”

This “sense of now” is important.

The brain has a rhythm. That rhythm — how quickly our neurons oscillate — is about 40 Hz. That frequency corresponds to time lengths of ~20 to ~60 milliseconds1.

We may think of our experience in the world as continuous, but it actually occurs in a never-ending series of discrete steps, like frame refreshes.

Turn out, this affects how we communicate with each other.

All that occurs in our lives has a duration. “Now” for humans is about three seconds (3,000 ms). Three seconds is about the limit at which we can integrate those successive 20–60 ms elements. Three seconds contains the present of things present, the present of things past, and the present of things future2.

So. Consider leaving a comment on an article. Or texting with someone who doesn’t write as quickly as you. Or slacking a co-worker who is slow to respond. When your experience of “now” doesn’t match another’s, do you get angry? Annoyed? Bored? Could it be because those people exist in a different temporality? That they are a phase shift away from your perception of time? That they are, temporally speaking at least, less human?

They say Internet commenters are assholes because they are anonymous. That anonymity extends to our perception of time. Online, we are present, but everyone else exists in the done and dusted past.

On the Internet, everyone else is a ghost.


1. Ernst Poppel, Mindworks: Time and Conscious Experience (which is wow, incredibly dull if you’re not leg-shakingly excited about this time stuff, which is why the link is down here in the footnotes dungeon).

2. St. Augustine’s Confessions. Significantly less dull. Significantly still in the footnotes.

Originally published on Dicks & Betties: the soylent email made out of people.

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