Reinventing the vent

I’m on several Discord servers that have « venting » channels. #vent-and-support, #rants-and-triggers and others are there, sometimes locked behind a specific role, sometimes available for everyone. #wins-and-happiness, -and-pets are comparatively much less represented.

It feels good to share with your friends when things are going wrong. Sometimes, you just need to scream into the void, but you don’t want it to be the void, you want to know that people have read you. So you post your complaint online, and you get little hearts and hugs reacts, and you feel better.

Or maybe you don’t.

Changelog: fixed a broken link on 2023-06-03.

Yes, put your feelings into words

Venting your feelings isn’t bad in the absolute. Emotions are hard to deal with, and they are absolutely essential to our survival and well-being; to avoid becoming numb to them, it’s perfectly valid to want reassurance. We then post our negative feelings to connect with people and know that we are supported through our issues, that being upset is valid.

Putting our feelings into words also helps, and [[journaling]] isn’t for everyone – having someone else ask follow-up questions can be essential to understanding what’s wrong and taking effective action against those issues for later.

But stop venting online.

It doesn’t help you…

Venting online helps you in the short term: for a few minutes, you feel more calm and relaxed. Except that frequent Internet ranters are actually angrier, and more negative about said anger, than the average person.

Catharsis theory predicts that venting / acting on your anger while thinking of what went wrong should help you. This theory was coined by Aristotle, who thought Greek tragedy « purged » negative feelings in the viewers, and revived by good old Sigmund Freud. But when we turn to existing studies, that doesn’t seem right at all. In fact, one specific study.pdf) showed that ruminating on something that went wrong made someone more aggressive and angry than distracting themselves. Even doing nothing at all about the problem yielded better results than that!

Most importantly, venting must come with solutions and a meaning. Just writing to complain on the Internet actually makes you suffer more than keeping things inside – and way less than actually working on it and finding a way to distance yourself from trauma, of course. And if you feel that this isn’t how it works for you, know that this study on mass shootings said that people think that venting is beneficial, even when its effect on their mental health is so very obviously negative.

And outside of what’s worth sharing, there’s also what should be shared, in a world of public content under the guise of anonymity. Without eye contact, we tend to forget how many people we’re talking to, and who has access to this personal information that makes us vulnerable.

…and actively hurts others

Sharing your negative emotions is exactly that: giving the negative emotions to the people subject to it. That’s why it’s so much easier to spread anger than joy on social media: ties are weaker between people, so it’s hard to share their joy, but their anger resonates with our own and propagates very easily.

If it’s not worth sharing with one close person in private, then it’s probably not worth sharing with anyone. And if it’s not worth shouting on the street at random passersby, then it’s definitely not worth sharing on the Internet in semi-public or fully public spaces.

But repeating negative emotions and talks with people who aren’t properly equipped for it will hurt them, too. Have you ever thought, « oh, this person is always complaining », and started avoiding them because talking to them made you irritated or sad, even when the topic at hand wasn’t necessarily negative? There’s a limit to what people can handle from others. The closer we are, the higher the limit is, but it still exists – and an online discussion server is a parasocial relationship, where you can feel close, but the limit is always lower than you’d think.

Listening to people who are experiencing negative emotions isn’t easy and requires some specific skills. Not everyone has that right combination of empathy, sympathy, good timing, relevant advice and psychological strength, especially nowadays when the entire world is a bit too much to deal with and we’re all struggling, at least a little. And not everyone has good advice to give, either.

How do we work towards healthier online communities?

Venting can work and actively help with [[santé mentale]]. The way to make it work is to turn it into actual dialogue and introspection. Think of causes and effects, share actual solutions, and make sure that vents aren’t repeated on loop.

I think changing the way we approach ranting in online communities must be a concerted effort between members and moderators. Mods need to make sure that the conversation doesn’t constantly spiral into a cesspool of negativity with no solutions and no help; members must understand why that is, and share solutions and advice just as much as compassion.

For everyone in the community

Work on negative emotions by yourself before jumping on the Internet.

Try writing down your emotions, changing your environment by going out for a walk, and make sure that you’ve taken care of all your physiological needs. Then, think of whether other people can help.

A classic way to deal with this is to write your vent, then read it, and… just let it go, because 90% of the time, you needed to write what was wrong and to release your negative feeling, but you really didn’t need others to catch it instead.

Choose the right place to vent.

Don’t vent to the entire Internet. Don’t vent to people who can’t help you, people who are already in a bad place and will just pile up your grief and theirs making everyone feel worse, people who just don’t care.

Try to vent to smaller groups, if only because sending details about your life to dozens, hundreds or thousands of people can be straight-up dangerous.

If you have a therapist and can wait until the next appointment, they’re generally the best person to talk to. (Seriously. Therapy is cool.)

Ask for advice.

Don’t just do the venting thing. When deciding to talk about something to a given group, make sure they know you want advice and solutions. It will give you a better outlook on the situation while avoiding making them feel powerless and sad.

Also, make sure that the people giving you advice are actually competent for advice-giving – this comes back to choosing the right place to complain. Many people will give you advice and are just as bad at dealing with your issue as you are. (Look at me, for instance – telling you all about why we need to vent online when I’m a repeat offender myself! But at least I’m using actual solid sources for this blog post, so I guess that’s fine. Right?)

Don’t make it last.

Vent once. Have a conversation. Get advice. Rehash the advice so that the next person in your situation can find your resource easily and that the others know you’ve actually listened. And then stop, even if it’s hard.

The longer you dwell on something negative, the higher the stress; if you can’t make sense of it and take action, then you might as well try and move on as quickly as possible.

Community organisers

Stop negative circles in their tracks.

I believe that it is your role, as a community organiser, to make sure that « sadness contests » and spiraling into negativity aren’t a natural occurrence.

It’s important to let people talk about what’s not going well without shutting down all negative conversation, the goal isn’t to enforce toxic positivity (in-Obsidian: [[toxic positivity]]). People can be sad and they are allowed to have bad times.

But if they keep coming back to the same issue week after week without showing any improvement, or if they pile up on someone else’s issues with their own similar (or not) problems without bringing any help, or if the same person is always sharing negative feelings, then you might want to talk to them and try to let it happen as little as possible.

Make sure people provide solutions.

Same point here – check out the conversation, let it happen, but if people only share negative anecdotes and « aw that sucks », then it might be time to let them know it’s better to move on.

What you want is proper advice and substantial support, as in, not that one ghost hug GIF, you know the one I’m talking about.

If there are no solutions given to a specific topic, then don’t feel bad about asking for a new topic to talk about – this is an Internet space of friends and acquaintances. Sometimes, there just is no specialist to help out with a specific issue. Your community is not the right space to solve the world’s problems, and that’s fine. « You should talk to a specialised community » and « You should ask a professional » are very good replies that we really don’t see enough of.

You have no duty to « save » people from themselves, even in support-oriented groups, and you now know that venting spaces can bring more harm than good.

Remove your venting channel.

Don’t try and keep the negativity to one given space, because that’s exactly what will happen: a channel/forum/group/post of unbearable sadness and anger, that will send everyone into a spiral of bad feelings every time they open. Then, they’ll only open fully prepared to have a bad time and share negative feelings – do you think that’s when the useful advice and positive outlook can be shared?

If people must absolutely vent, try directing them to more specific channels. For instance, someone who has an issue at work is much more likely to find proper empathy and advice in a work-related space than in a generic sad space. Directing people to the proper channels allows for a mix of positive and constructive interactions, neutral discussion, and vents for when they’re really needed. This way, you can also make sure that the quantity of negative engagement doesn’t overwhelm the rest: if there’s too much, there’s probably some action to take!

Make sure people have a place to be happy.

Everything I said applies to negative emotions. But with joy being way less sticky than anger and sadness in online spaces, I do feel like having a channel dedicated to wins and happiness should be much more widespread in online communities. Build that space where people can celebrate things small and big, and share the joy for a quick pick-me-up!

Or don’t, and use the thematic channels for greater balance.

Foster friendship and support.

I have no studies to corroborate this, but from personal experience, the most prolific online venters are the ones who don’t have a strong network of support offline. Creating warm and welcoming communities, where people can truly belong and make new friends, means that the support network will slowly start existing. This naturally reduces the need for a public venting space to begin with.

The shortest conclusion

There are a lot of things you can do to make your online space better, and I have a deep belief that getting rid of « venting spaces » will bring incredible results to the general [[santé mentale]] and wellbeing of your community members.

And hey, maybe you can all share this page with the communities you belong to, and work on actual solutions to make everyone feel better!

Big thanks to Zorg & Ashleigh for proofreading this post.

Further reading

Non-academic sources used for this article

Academic sources used for this article

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