Games of hash­tag blood­sport

The in­ter­net ou­trage en­gine shows no sign of slow­ing as our love/hate re­la­tion­ship with so­cial me­dia continues, writes Omar L. Gal­laga.

The Press - The Box - - TECHNOLOGY - MCT

Some­times it seems that if so­cial me­dia were some­one we were col­lec­tively dat­ing or were mar­ried to, that it would be time to talk about a breakup. For all the joy it can bring us (in­stan­ta­neous com­mu­ni­ca­tion; funny cat pho­tos; live com­men­tary on im­por­tant games), so­cial me­dia pushes our but­tons. I can’t think of any­thing in so-called real life that so con­sis­tently en­rages and an­noys, en­cour­ag­ing people I know to ex­pose the worst parts of their per­son­al­ity.

But, at least for people who spend a lot of time on­line, the ubiq­uity of so­cial me­dia – Twit­ter, Face­book, In­sta­gram, dozens of oth­ers some in­ter­act with ev­ery day – has al­lowed us to fall into a com­fort zone of pure id. We re­act to things when they hap­pen as they hap­pen, and our guard is down; we’re apt to pile on to com­men­tary about break­ing news or to join an on­line mob when some­one is ex­posed as say­ing some­thing racist or when they sim­ply make a mis­take.

That part is wor­ry­ing. We’re quick to ou­trage, slow to apol­o­gise or even go back and ac­knowl­edge when we’ve over-re­acted.

Some­times, the ou­trage is war­ranted. When bas­ket­ball club owner Don­ald Ster­ling was re­vealed to have some very out­dated ideas about race, play­ers and mil­lions of oth­ers took to Twit­ter to ex­press anger and dis­be­lief. Some tweets were elo­quent, oth­ers much less so.

But even when be­ing of­fended is war­ranted, there’s a pil­ing on mag­ni­fied by Twit­ter’s echocham­ber ef­fect. It be­comes a game of hash­tag blood­sport, each per­son try­ing to top ev­ery­one else with the clever­est, most suc­cinct take on that day’s drama. The per­son who gets retweeted most wins, even if it’s preach­ing to the choir. There’s a new cat­e­gory of news story you can find, even on main­stream sites, ‘‘The Best Twit­ter Re­ac­tions to . . .’’ – an easy-to-build kind of ag­gre­ga­tion that re­wards the fun­ni­est or most im­pas­sioned posts.

Of course, hav­ing the re­ac­tion that stands out most can also lead to trou­ble. Lean too far into the ou­trage and you could end up of­fend­ing oth­ers. It’s a line that co­me­di­ans have had to be in­creas­ingly aware of even as they try to skate as close to the edge of ac­cept­able for the sake of hu­mour.

But why do we re­act so strongly to these things, be­com­ing what the New York Post once called in a head­line, ‘‘The in­ter­net ou­trage fac­tory?’’ What sets us off?

Andrew Dil­lon, dean of the Univer­sity of Texas School of In­for­ma­tion, says re­search shows that dur­ing all that time we spend star­ing at screens, more ef­fort is re­quired to achieve the same com­pre­hen­sion as get­ting our in­for­ma­tion from paper.

And, separately, on­line it feels like we’re en­gag­ing in an on­line con­ver­sa­tion, rarely paus­ing to re­flect for deeper mean­ing be­fore we weigh in.

‘‘Not only does this in­crease the speed of re­sponse, but it tends to sup­press care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion and deep dis­cus­sion, leading of­ten to de­con­tex­tu­alised com­men­tary and a break­down in shared un­der­stand­ing,’’ Dil­lon said.

This be­comes trou­bling when you con­sider how much of what’s posted on­line, even from re­li­able sources, can be out of con­text or sim­ply wrong.

Late last year, when a New Jersey wait­ress posted that cus­tomers re­fused to tip her be­cause she was gay, the in­ter­net ex­ploded in ou­trage, de­cry­ing her mis­treat­ment. It turned out she made up the in­ci­dent and was later fired from her job.

The ac­tor James Franco ear­lier this year was ac­cused of in­ap­pro­pri­ate flirt­ing with a 17-year-old via the photo so­cial net­work In­sta­gram. It didn’t take long for news of the lech­ery to spread, but even to­day, it’s un­clear if the in­ci­dent wasn’t just an elab­o­rate piece of per­for­mance art for a fic­tional Franco film char­ac­ter.

The in­ter­net is rarely what it seems. We get cat­fished. We fall vic­tim to clever mar­ket­ing tricks. We pass on bad in­for­ma­tion be­cause it’s there and we want to be first, to show that we’re in the know.

But anger and ou­trage don’t re­ally bot­tle back up well, es­pe­cially when the tar­get of the scorn turns out to be in­no­cent.

But it’s also pos­si­ble that the al­ter­na­tive is worse. At least we have chan­nels where any­one’s voice can carry far­ther than ever be­fore, where col­lec­tive speech is easy to cor­ral into some­thing use­ful, or at least some­thing that can be ac­knowl­edged.

In a smart es­say last year, writer Rox­ane Gay made a strong case for the util­ity of ou­trage. She wrote, ‘‘In­ter­net ou­trage can seem mind­less but it rarely is. To make that as­sump­tion is dis­mis­sive. There’s some­thing be­neath the ou­trage – an un­will­ing­ness to be silent in the face of ig­no­rance, ha­tred or in­jus­tice. Ou­trage may not al­ways be pro­duc­tive but it is far bet­ter than si­lence.’’

I don’t think the anger is very healthy for us, but at least so­cial me­dia hasn’t turned us into pas­sive drones, un­able to think or feel or re­act.

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