This morning, when I tried to log into Helium, I got a message that the site was undergoing maintenance. No problem, I thought. This was a scheduled upgrade, which had been mentioned in the forums the night before. I thought I'd just come back later.
But then a few things in the wording of the "we're down" message page caught my eye:
If you see a Read Only, or maintenance message, when you come to Helium.com, it means that we’re either fixing something or updating our website to bring you new features. And everyone likes new features!
Unfortunately, if you see a Read Only or maintenance message you won’t be allowed to do certain things on the site. The upside is that this usually lasts only a few hours. When you come back, you’ll be able to do everything that makes Helium.com the best writers website on the Internet."Everyone likes new features!" "The upside is ..." "... the best writers website on the Internet"
In my travels around the internet, I've noticed a lot of forced optimism. I don't mean to pick on Helium, because I've been seeing the same type of thing in many different places -- the Helium page just provides a convenient example. It seems as if people are using a formula which requires them to follow any negative statements (the site is temporarily down) with positive ones (the upside is...), as if that were a way to ward off bad luck, the verbal equivalent of stepping over the cracks in the sidewalk.
Why so much cloying positivity now? It's not new, of course. I remember seeing The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale on my sister's bookshelves when I was growing up -- it was a huge bestseller, The Secret of its day. But it seems more common now than at any other time I can remember.
Not everyone has jumped on the happy gravy train. A few weeks ago at the library, I skimmed through a book I found on the new-book shelf by Barbara Ehrenreich (author of "Nickled and Dimed") called Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America.
What often bothers me most about the "positive" approach is that it can be so negative. I've seen people on discussion boards pile on, in group attacks, on some pour soul who has said something they deem negative (often just a mild reality check). Other times, they proclaim they are positive and loving, and urge each other to stand up for themselves and forcefully expel from their lives people who are not up to their standards of positivity. There is nothing positive, loving, or accepting about that level of hostility and anger.
In an interview, Ehrenreich discusses that same phenomenon on the corporate scale:
I have traced how positive thinking became the corporate culture in America. It was mandatory to be positive.
So you had companies who would literally fire people for being negative, negative in the sense of maybe raising too many questions, maybe expressing a doubt.
One example is the man who was the head of the real estate division of Lehman Bros. in 2006 and told his CEO that he thought the whole housing thing was a bubble and they should start getting out, and he was fired for that.
So we had a culture of complete denial at all levels of the possibility that bad things could happen...There's a lot of wishful thinking going on. It seems as if people believe that if they assert something to be true, then it will be true (very much in line with "The Secret"). And that's what struck me the most about this line on the Helium error page: "When you come back, you’ll be able to do everything that makes Helium.com the best writers website on the Internet."
I might not have even noticed that line, except for two things: (1) There's a constant drumbeat, every day, on the Helium forums of people saying that Helium is the best site on the whole internet, that it has the best writing and the most accurate information. It's more than just advertising puffery. People really seem to believe it, or to have willed themselves to believe it. (2) There's an apostrophe missing from the word "writers," making the sentence unintentionally ironic.
You can't aim for quality unless you first admit that quality exists. If everything is wonderful simply because people assert that it is, then why bother to make the effort to do a good job? It's easier to simply say, after the fact, that the job you have done is good. There's no need to take the trouble to seek out good investments when it's easier to believe that derivative thingamajobs that no one understands will make you rich. It's not necessary to struggle to learn how to write well, when you can become the best writer in the universe simply by saying and believing that you already are.
Photo credit: "happy happy joy joy" by Katie Harris, some rights reserved. I love the contrast between the woman's expression and the smiley faces.