February 11, 2014
All I know is that first you've got to get mad!
— Howard Beale (@Howard_Beale) March 16, 2009
If you’ve been online at all in the last several years you’ve probably noticed something: everyone is outraged. We’re offended, constantly, about everything. Social media has birthed this bizarre hazing ritual of unmasking and publicly shaming people who say idiotic things; a growing quota of our online activity involves participating in these social smugathons where crowds gather to cast moral aspersions on the hapless rube who did something awful that week. Outrage is a milieu in which we’re engaging others, and our boundless hunger for schadenfreude demands that we toss a new victim into the volcano every several days to keep the conversation going. It’s exhausting.
It’s also understandable. Our online crab antics exist by dint of the fact that social media is highly effective at capturing people who say and do legitimately terrible things. Our virtual pettifogging has become so popular it has now influenced a new model for written content, with political and current affairs sites like Slate, Salon, Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, and ThinkProgress (and less surprisingly, gossip sites like Gawker) ditching much of their news and political coverage to work the outrage beat: offering ramshackle editorials on a nigh daily basis regarding what’s offending us at the moment, how it compares to past offenses, and how offended we are as a result. Political sites like Mediaite lure Facebook users to view otherwise ho-hum pundit clips on their website with status updates written in a hilariously neo-Victorian argot (“This is outrageous!” “I, for one, was disgusted!”). The prevalence of “outrage bait,” or copy that bills itself as critical analysis but is actually little more than histrionic mob rallying, is media companies’ reaction to a social media landscape that resembles a World’s Fair of indignation. Manipulating readers’ capacity for moral judgment, it turns out, is a boon for page views and bounce rate. Ultimately, it’s also a content model that’s doomed to fail.
The founder of an athletic apparel company makes an idiotic statement regarding women’s bodies. A pasta company chairman says he doesn’t want gay families representing his products. The headlines practically write themselves. Sometimes, however, the newsworthiness becomes far more tenuous, and these are the occasions when today’s media reveal their hands. Got a slow news day? Let’s resurrect a 2006 Slate interview wherein a clothing company executive made an offhanded remark about overweight people, which is what the Internet did to Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries … in May 2013. Given that today’s media increasingly employ a per-click pay model for staff writers, it stands to reason that salacious, cheap content now fares an even better chance of reaching the masses while thoughtful, quality analysis fades into the din. It appears some of these outlets have been tapping into our outrage reserves for so long they’ve forgotten that manufactured crises still need working narratives, lest these sites begin to resemble parodies of themselves. In an embarrassing February 3 post on Jerry Seinfeld, Gawker writer Kyle Chayka was thoroughly mocked when he tried to spin Seinfeld’s antipathy toward comedy as a representational vehicle into the wild supposition that he “seems to suggest that any comedian who is not a white male is also not funny.” The outrage council was even more unimpressed when Jezebel allegedly forked over $10,000 in January for pre-Photoshopped photos of Lena Dunham’s Vogue cover shoot with Annie Leibovitz. As it turns out, hosting a conversation on female body image is a Pyrrhic endeavor when that conversation compromises the privacy of a subject who is routinely assailed for her physical appearance. In vying for our wholesale anger these media outlets have revealed the boundaries of content that exists not to inform but merely to serve as carrots for ad metrics. Sites like Gawker have maintained their relevance not by offering anything resembling journalism but by aping social media, becoming a destination where people can gather and argue. Come for the outrage, stay for the brine of trolls who dare disagree with the prevailing narrative.
Granted, missteps like the above might remind readers how affected some of this outrage is, but these articles still serve their short-term purpose: rile readers, then let them scream their fingers off in the comments section for increased bounce rate. Some sites desperate for attention have taken this model to further extremes, and now publish content that goads readers to apoplexy, deliberately hosting fringe beliefs for the metrics they earn from those who flock to the site for a chance to pig-pile on the author. ThoughtCatalog, a content farm that reads like a teenybopper’s equivalent of Nigerian spam, has grown particularly adept at this (two of its most popular columns in the past year were “Being Privileged Is Not A Choice, So Stop Hating Me For It” and “I Look Down On Young Women With Husbands And Kids And I’m Not Sorry”). Here the authors play the role of the heel, baiting readers to click and rage. I have no idea whether the creators of Return of Kings personally believe the absurd levels of misogyny they host on their site (which includes articles like “5 Reasons To Date A Girl With An Eating Disorder”), but it’s apparent that they’ve managed to turn being ignorant assholes into full-time careers. Imagine a Borgesian future in which Madison Avenue crisis management firms — the parties traditionally brought in to quell scandals— now deliberately manufacture false outrage as a means of promulgating a brand into the national conversation. In the world of Internet content, this is exactly what’s happening.
In his 2008 Atlantic essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Nicholas Carr argued that the Internet is not only changing the way we access information, it’s changing the way we think. I’m not so worried about the Internet waterlogging our brains insomuch as I’m concerned about what it’s doing to us emotionally. Anger is dumb; psychologists refer to it as a “secondary” emotion because we can use it to voice hurt or vulnerability by proxy. Our keyboard outrage reveals a proclivity to scream before we have the facts, before we can adequately evaluate what we’re so upset about in the first place. There was nothing “racist” about the Brooklyn yogi who took to xojane in January to lament the lack of African American members in her yoga class; the author is simply a casual idiot who was unfortunately given an editorial outlet. The Internet’s social justice pedantry of raging first and asking questions later is cauterizing our perceptions and stripping us of our ability to think critically. Our outrage is always conveniently targeted; it suggests a missing depth of moral field. Paula Deen and Phil Robertson get more shame time than ongoing rapes in the military or the expansion of the NSA’s spying program. The majority of us are using the Internet simply to feed our confirmation biases; anytime someone we like does something despicable we fall conveniently silent. A low ranking Republican politician no one’s heard of makes another ignorant statement regarding abortion and the Internet explodes; we discover Woody Allen may have molested his seven-year-old daughter, however, and editors the country over suddenly petition cool heads. The terms of our outrage are rarely clear, and perhaps this explains why it’s also such a fleeting thing. Taylor Chapman, a 27-year-old Florida woman who videotaped her vulgar, racist rant to a Dunkin’ Donuts employee last June, quickly became the Internet’s public enemy number-one (Gawker called her the “worst person ever”). By the time it was revealed that Chapman suffered from a lifetime of severe mental problems, we’d already moved on to the next outrage. Our shotgun shaming doesn’t allow room for nuance; we’ve been conditioned to emotively evaluate everything on a scale of multiple choices: click a button, express rage, et al. The social web, paradoxically, is fostering abjectly anti-social behavior. It’s making us sound crazy.
Let’s be honest: the idea that Internet users would scour the web looking for things to offend them is about as absurd as the media’s altruistic claims that they report on this tripe to “start a dialogue.” Many of the instances of “outrage” I’ve referred to herein are just convenient ways of saying we’ve ennobled our self-image in watching someone else’s perennial shortcomings. As long as our public shaming rituals can be turned into ad dollars, the crypto-tabloids of the Internet will burn through these prosaic narratives indefinitely. The real question is: how long until we’re burned out?