Extremely Online

Is It Time To Embrace “Opinion Fatigue”?

After years of battling bad-faith critics online, some people are keeping their takes to themselves.

In April 2022, creator Paulomi Dholakia had some thoughts about Disney. Specifically, she was upset the company didn’t seem to be promoting the Ms. Marvel series, which features the franchise’s first Muslim superhero, as much as it had promoted its other series, like Hawkeye. She first posted this opinion on TikTok, and after people agreed with her, she brought the same video to Instagram.

“It went viral in a very bad way,” Dholakia says. Instead of support, or civil discussion, she was met with comments like “F*ck you you clout chasing b*tch.”

“It made me feel so self-conscious, that maybe I don’t need to say stuff,” she says. Dholakia, who is 31 years old and aspiring to a full-time career as a travel agent, had been sharing more on social media to build business opportunities, but the incident exposed the challenges of virality. “I try not to mess up, try not to stir the pot, and that’s probably why I’m not going to get anywhere on social media,” she concedes. “Because if you don’t stir the pot or you don’t put yourself out there in a very raw, authentic way, then why are people watching you?”

Dholakia grew up in an online environment that encourages users to share everything from their thoughts on politics to their takes on pop culture. But as the online landscape has grown into an all-encompassing digital town square, experiences like Dholakia’s have prompted her and other former social media power users to throw their hands up and admit “opinion fatigue.” From the depths of ’90s-era internet forums through the tweets and Tumblr screeds of the 2010s into today’s viral TikToks, opinions and their resulting discourse have been the driving force behind social media. But after 10 years of algorithmically driven feeds that give users extra incentive to comment on trending topics and reward increasingly “hot takes,” users are making the choice to opt out or otherwise radically alter how they post their thoughts online.

“People feel like they finally have a voice,” says Linda Charmaraman, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women and director of the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab. “People want to feel validated. ‘Do you agree with me? What do you think?’ And just trying to keep up that engagement is a game in itself.”

In the early 2010s, Reddit built a culture around these kinds of conversations. Meme formats like “Am I The Only One Around Here” and the subreddit r/UnpopularOpinion cropped up as forums for users to share and debate some of their most controversial thoughts, albeit anonymously. As social media became more public, and people began putting their names to their posts, the opinion-sharing game got a bit more complicated. Social media grew into an industry, and these takes were rewarded with more than just attention.

“If you don’t stir the pot or you don’t put yourself out there in a very raw, authentic way, then why are people watching you?”

Many of today’s public figures leveraged the online attention they’ve received into careers, from internet culture writers like Rayne Fisher-Quann all the way to to far-right streamers like Nick Fuentes. Product reviewers, cultural critics, political commentators, and op-ed writers all cash in on the value of their opinions, but it can come at a personal cost. After journalist Lauren Duca wrote a viral 2016 op-ed for Teen Vogue titled “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America,” she became a prominent figure for her political commentary, and the author of How to Start a Revolution: Young People and the Future of Politics. But these opinions catapulted Duca into a public position she was not quite suited for, resulting in frequent and intense internet backlash, as well as a formal complaint from students in a 2019 class she taught for New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She had, in her words, “transformed into a Macy’s parade float caricature of [herself] and exploded like a whale stuffed with dynamite.” She announced in 2020 that she was taking an indefinite break from social media.

Opinion fatigue, whether it manifests a whale explosion or a gradual buildup, can be blamed on a number of factors. Creator Hannah Stella says that while she earned her combined 188,000 followers on TikTok and Instagram because of her candid and unfiltered thoughts on dating and pop culture, her audience is now too large for her to share her opinions in the same way. “There are always people who are consistently determined to willfully misinterpret what is said,” Stella says. “There’s a tremendous pressure to, as you say things or type them or post them, anticipate any kind of negative feedback there could be. … It’s made being online less fun than it used to be. And I think that that’s where the temptation to pull back comes from.”

While conservative commentators are the ones who most vocally rally against “cancel culture,” lamenting that “you just can’t say anything anymore,” opinion fatigue anecdotally seems to be more common in left-leaning spaces. This could be because backlash to an opinion from people you disagree with is expected, whereas a negative response from people whose opinions you respect can feel more damning — and the left is more prone (publicly, at least) to disagreements within its own ranks.

Some of these disagreements are due to what TikTok content creator Michelle Skidelsky refers to as “whataboutism.” As in she could post a video recommending a recipe with cheese, and then be accused by a commenter of excluding vegans. In April, she posted a video about this phenomenon, which she says has become increasingly prevalent on TikTok.

“I can make a video on the most mundane subject, and I’m bound to be accused of some kind of bigotry,” she said in the video. Now, she tells me over Zoom, she ends up abandoning around half of the things she thinks about posting. “It’s not even because I think it’s wrong or I’m like, ‘OK, I could see how that would be a sensitive issue,’” she says. “I just don’t even want to deal with what would come after.”

It’s not just the immediate feedback that’s exhausting. Digging up old tweets or other internet activity is often used as a gotcha that’s levied against public, and increasingly not-so-public, figures who may now feel differently.

“People will be like, ‘Well, you said this in 2018,’” Stella says. “And I’m like, ‘OK, I don’t know, that b*tch was crazy!’”

Because a tweet from 2016 looks the same as one from last week, it’s perhaps hard for viewers to conceptualize the passing of time, and changes that may come with it. Public opinion around a topic can shift but is then sometimes retroactively applied to internet opinions formed long before this new consensus.

“People will be like, ‘Well, you said this in 2018. And I’m like, ‘OK, I don’t know, that b*tch was crazy!’”

“The internet expects this sort of personality permanence where you have to be the same person now and forever more,” says writer and director Alegría Adedeji, who began pulling back from sharing on social media as early as 2018.

To avoid being overloaded with feedback, or risk posting an opinion that may not age well, Adedeji is instead rethinking how she approaches sharing opinions online. “I’ve gone from being able to produce maybe two essays a month to now maybe once every three months I’ll come up with something, because I’m actively having to deconstruct what I think and think about why that’s my opinion,” Adedeji says of her Substack newsletter, hONest. “I think I’m in the process of changing my mind about a lot of things.”

Stella similarly now puts most of her thoughts behind her partially paywalled Substack, Moxie, which prevents her opinions from reaching too far or being so easily taken out of context. The easiest option, of course, would be to share nothing at all, but for public figures like Stella, she finds anything she doesn’t openly share is instead replaced by people’s assumptions. “People have accused me of having wild politics because I don’t share my politics,” she says.

It may feel, then, that it’s better to share than not. In reality, Charmaraman says, the opinion environment on social media is somewhat skewed.

“I think if people don’t know, they just don’t speak up,” she says. Instead, we only see the people with something to say, which can make it feel like we, too, have to contribute our thoughts or be the odd one out. Plus, silence on a prominent political or social issue can be interpreted as complicity. It took Taylor Swift three years to disavow white supremacy after the Daily Stormer referred to her as “pure Aryan goddess,” revealing her status as an (unintentional) neo-Nazi idol. She told Rolling Stone in 2019 that she wasn’t aware of how her image had been co-opted and attributed her silence to a “sort of political ambivalence, because the person I voted for had always won.” For much of the public, however, this explanation was too little, too late.

There have been attempts to change this culture. When Instagram introduced its new text-based app Threads, boss Adam Mosseri said the app is “not going to do anything to encourage” politics and “hard news.” Some early users also tried to aggressively pioneer a culture of positivity.

“I am starting a Threads Positivity Patrol,” Twitch streamer Jaime Tan, who goes by the username igumdrop, wrote. “If we see anything negative with bad vibes then we bombard that person with compliments and hugs until they’re forcibly converted.”

But although the app initially boasted 100 million sign-ups in the first week, three weeks after launch, active daily users dropped from a peak of 49 million on July 7 to 12 million on July 22. In contrast, Twitter averages more than 100 million active daily users.

One app wouldn’t be able to change almost two decades of learned behavior, anyway. For social media to become less fraught, and for people to feel comfortable sharing opinions again, it’s the users who need to change — starting, Adedeji says, with the understanding that an opinion can change, and should never be considered an indisputable truth.

“For something that is always getting bigger and improving and giving us more information, it seems to be very unforgiving to the fact that like the internet itself, the people on it can change,” she says.