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.
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 When basketball club owner Donald Sterling was revealed to have some very outdated ideas about race, players and millions of others took to Twitter to express anger and disbelief.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.