You might mistakenly think that staying indoors and living online 24×7 will keep you safe from natural squalls and tempests. Don’t be fooled! It’s true that you can avoid risks like hurricanes, sleet, and thunderstorms online. However, in digital life you’re much more likely to be buffeted by disturbing, unpredictable conditions just as troublesome as any hurricane. What’s worse, when online whirlwinds hit, your insurance won’t pay.
The word “shitstorm” is now officially a word in German. Just as in English, refers to a violent controversy, debated by nearly every online being, real or virtual, based on millions of unfounded opinions and a great deal of exaggeration.
A zeitgust, is what I would call a temporary gale of fervent online opinions and discussions with the potential to grow into a shitstorm. Fortunately, most zeitgusts don’t become full strength shitstorms. However, you can’t afford to ignore the risk that they’ll get worse.
Online zeitgusts and shitstorms cause their greatest harm through disproportionality—treating issues that don’t matter as if they do. If you’re wondering whether an online controversy falls in this category ask this question: “If you had never heard about this, would your life be any different?” Probably not. So, why give it space in your head?
Also, being the object of a zeitgust can become a personal shitstorm for you. Under no circumstances should you seek to become the object of a zeitgust. No good can come of it.
Because your typical, full bore, Category 9 shitstorm doesn’t appear from nowhere, you can often predict its development. A shitstorm often evolves in steps, sometimes out of view, sometimes rapidly, passing through several predictable stages before reaching their final, dreaded form. By knowing these stages, you can shield yourself from the worst damage. Those stages might include:
- Meme—A quip, a photo, a passing attitude, a meme flies across the Internet as quickly as a Justin Bieber selfie.
- Viral meme—Splitting into millions of shared copies, a meme can race through cyberspace like the Spanish Flu. A routine, innocuous viral meme often fades away within a day or so, only to be recycled from time to time by late adopters.
- Zeitgust—If a viral meme triggers enough online hysteria, the resulting reaction can create a brief, violent blowback, a zeitgust. An official zeitgust is identified by the amount of flaming, trolling, and unfriending it causes across multiple social media outlets.
- Shitstorm—A zeitgust that goes on for more than 24 hours can become a shitstorm, precipitating news stories, political posturing, government investigations, CEO apologies, and even some rash rulemaking by people who make a career of blowing things out of proportion.
Because online zeitgusts follow a predictable path as they grow to become shitstorms, here are 4 ways to protect yourself and the people you know:
- Don’t add hot air to a zeitgust—Every idiot has something to say about the latest kerfuffle. Do you need become one more idiot? Unless you’re ready to exhaust your supply of backup Xanax, you probably have better things to think about.
- Avoid standing in a shitstorm—Just like those half-wit weather forecasters who stand outside during hurricanes to tell you not to stand outside during hurricanes, don’t be a dummy. Avoid exposure as much as you can. Don’t read too many clickbait articles or watch too many videos that exploit the current zeitgust.
- Warn others—If you feel comfortable doing so, add the hashtag #zeitgust when you see an online squall developing. That way people your friends and acquaintences can reduce their risk by taking a nice walk in the park.
- Stay low—Nobody will notice what you don’t say. Look for strategic moments to take a break from social media drama and preserve your own peace of mind. Turn off the gadgets for a few days. Go to the beach. Read a trashy novel. Most zeitgusts and shitstorms pass quickly to make room for new ones.