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The Self-Congratulatory Culture of the Viral Note

Last week I was tickled, as you may have been, by the story of a woman in Denver who found her car scratched with a note stuck in the left side mirror. Leaving one’s info after a parking lot fender-bender isn’t yet a newsworthy level of courtesy, but the peace offering was: Two apologies, two $20 bills, and a partially smoked joint in a baggie.

You see this kind of note go viral all the time these days, in part because there are so few occasions to scribble them in our hyperconnected era, but also because they tend to reinforce our biases and self-conceptions. My enjoyment of the hilariously Coloradan mea culpa joint traces back to my belief that stoners are good, genuine, sensitive people, if often oblivious to the fact that not everyone smokes weed. (“I’m not a smoker. I’m a runner,” said the amused recipient. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with it.”) The article gives me a fuzzy feeling because it matches a positive stereotype in which, as a stoner, I am personally invested. For that same reason, I’m more likely to share it.

Rarely, though, is a handwritten note expressly crafted for social media accolades and content aggregators (you can find those messages over on Facebook). Paper notes have a privacy about them that is shattered, for better or worse, by online exposure. The internet fell in love with the dad who packed orange-peeling instructions in the last school lunch he made for his daughter, enshrining him forever as an ideal parent, but he probably didn’t expect this affectionate gesture to pick up half a million likes on Twitter. That isn’t to say it was wrong to post these photos, only that when you offer up tokens of individual relationships to the web, you also surrender them to the dreaded “discourse.”

Take the scrap of note above, which reveals a fourth-grader’s plan to start a female empowerment group. Definitely inspiring! And a necessary reminder, amid a grossly male government, of what feminism is fighting for. A teacher who finds this in their classroom can proudly help the project along. Yet the tweet itself serves mainly as an endorphin hit for the uninvolved adults who engage favorably with it, and as a convenient lightning rod for misogynist trolls who want to trash 10-year-old girls:

No matter the note, those are the options: Warm approval and the affirmation that this represents The Way Things Should Be, or outrage, backlash, and condemnation. It’s hardly surprising, then, that so many viral notes touch upon hot-button, neatly divisive topics: how to raise a child, gender roles, money, immigration. Think of the summer bucket list discovered in an Urban Outfitter dressing room this past July, which split readers into dueling camps, one saying “teens will be teens” and the other mortified that anyone would laugh about a young woman aspiring to get drunk and give blowjobs.

There’s also the subgenre of viral restaurant checks, in which bigots withhold tips from non-white or LGBTQ servers, scrawling hateful judgments on the bill, or charitable types overpay to demonstrate their allegiance to the working class. You get to pick your heroes and villains based on your politics, decide when to be moved and when to be horrified, and always pat yourself on the back for having the right reaction. It’s a cliché you could satirize in your sleep: “Exceedingly Mediocre Restaurant Tip Goes Viral.”

Finally, you have the note-writers who share their own handiwork online, as some more broadly illustrative lesson. It’s impossible not to have sympathy for a woman who needs to illustrate the shopping lists she gives her husband, a gas station employee fed up with his unprofessional manager, or a black man replying to passive-aggressive threats from his white neighbors. But once again, whereas each communiqué is expressly tailored and appropriate to a specific audience, the multiverse of Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, and Facebook will extrapolate and misrepresent the text to suit a million other agendas. The vitally personal touch of the note becomes secondary to the desire for amplification.

The rosy allure of that viral fame should make us all the more skeptical — though it often doesn’t. Notes have a way of seeming like provable objects, Photoshop-proof, more authentic than the pixelated fonts we scroll through every day, even when the people uploading them have something to gain. Maybe you remember the waitress accused of hoaxing the public (and collecting thousands of dollars in donations) by doctoring a customer receipt to include a homophobic remark. And while many choked up earlier this year when a fifth-grade teacher posted a heartfelt letter from his student, few were aware of the follow-up story, reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: The guy didn’t work in the school district, nor was he licensed to teach in the state of Georgia.

Notes are humble, vulnerable things, a quieter way of communicating, set apart not only from the onslaught of our digital feeds, but spoken language, too. They strike our emotions squarely because they contain the words we won’t say aloud, but can’t keep bottled up, either. The internet feeds on this intimacy, and in the end always snuffs it out or blows it up. At some point we must figure out what we don’t want the whole world reading — what we are going to keep for ourselves. There is nothing selfish in that.