how do we determine the lifespan of the internet outrage industrial complex?
Since the dawn of the web, there have been shock jocks and people on a quest to see who can post the most extreme content without crossing the line into depraved criminality. Then, with an enormous wave of social media companies, and our ever-expanding access to broadband and fast mobile networks, the distance between saying and doing something very regrettable, and a massive backlash that can go global, has never been shorter. An ill-thought out tweet could be devastating to one’s life and career, and we’re still all getting used to this scary reality, making a lot of mistakes along the way. Every bad decision, questionable blog post, and tone-deaf article zooms around the world within minutes to one of the online media’s most reliable sources of all those sweet, juicy, ad price hiking page views: the outraged response. Just consider last year’s meteoric rise of the outrage click, with a fresh, new scandal for each and every day, and should we consider non-celebrities and the world outside current events, many more beyond that.
This year, the outrage machine isn’t slowing down one bit. If anything, it’s picked up steam as a vast array of popular blogs and news sites are ready to pounce on every Twitter war and every botched interview and social media post. But as the rage keeps on coming, there’s a slow, sure trickle of think pieces asking if we’re ever going to get tired of it and if it’s the result of opening a digital Pandora’s Box. After all, once you give people a diet of nothing but outrage, they should, in theory, become largely immune to it, right? We have the same issue when it comes to caring and empathizing with something that leaves a large number of victims in its wake, a well known and thoroughly studied phenomenon known as the scope-severity paradox. It comes down to a limit on how many things we can process at once and how much emotion we can invest in each and every case brought to our attention. Our empathetic and and cognitive abilities start fading quickly when we’re overwhelmed, so logically, someday, we’ll get completely outraged out.
In fact, it would really be interesting to see and compare the traffic from popular outrage articles and social media posts over the last few years to chart the duration and size of each fury spike. There are publicly available tools for researchers regarding Twitter and Facebook activity, but a glimpse at that data alone wouldn’t tell the full story. We’d need closely kept traffic data from all the major media sources with more than a million views a day, including comment counts, likes, shares, and links, as well as additional controls for small cliques in debates inflating comments, regular outrageaholics, and whether the pieces are one-offs, or the entire outlet traffics in solely outrage and scandal. Only then will we actually have a clue as to whether the internet will in fact get sick of the steady drumbeat of the outrage machine. At the same time, I think we can make several predictions as to what we’re likely to find because while the speed and medium are new to us, how we collect and sometimes manufacture outrage for the public is rather old hat.
First off, it’s unlikely that internet outrage will ever be dethroned as a key in building traffic since we sure love to form angry mobs and it’s simply too easy to throw some red meat to such mobs just waiting to form. Likewise, it should be noted that among this outrage, there are instances of actual, brutal, noteworthy injustice that must be swiftly, vocally, and publicly addressed to make things right again. As bizarre as it sounds, sometimes an angry mob can actually do some good and contribute to fixing a problem. If anything, we do want the Outrage Machine around for the instances where we can use its power for good rather than evil, chaos, and PC wars. Secondly, people are going to participate in whipping up media outrage and escalating it it because they’ll want to be part of an angry mob, and nowadays, they don’t even have to physically grab nearby torches and pitchforks. Tweets and Facebook posts will more than suffice. With this barrier to a virtual riot as low as a click, many will find it hard to resist from basking in moral superiority.
Finally, let’s just admit that there are writers whose very bread and butter now relies on getting involved in some sort of scandal, so their outrage will get posted and promoted day in, day out, hoping that one or two of their pieces of outrage clickbait go viral and get them the page views, attention, and vitriolic feedback they need to keep their careers going. If online outrage starts to die down as a genre, it’s going to be a very slow death with periodic spasms that make it seem as if it had risen from death once again. It’s too easy to generate it, too easy to escalate it, way too easy to let it consume you, and it feeds the urge of many to seeing others in a situation that gives them a chance to gloat and compare themselves favorably to the disgraced schmucks. At the same time, there is a very real danger that constant outrage will ruin our connection to how our much less dramatic world really works, and lose incidents where public outrage is almost a required civic duty among the trivial and inconsequential. And that would be sad indeed.