Outrage and Strongly Worded Blog Posts

On my long drive back down the west coast this past holiday season, I listened about 20 hours of podcasts. Most of them were political and current events, including “Left, Right, and Center”, “The Bugle”, and my favorite, “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” I also listened to several episodes of “Political Gabfest”, and one segment about outrage caught my attention since I had been thinking about similar issues in this blog post.

Roughly, the segment was a discussion about Slate’s feature piece, “The year of outrage 2014,” where they catalogued social media outrage from every day of 2014 and turned it into a nifty interactive. It turns out that there was a lot of outrage.

It’s ironic that Slate decided to appeal to a culture of outrage, in part derived from our preference for minimal context and easily digested information, is a massive infographic and 10 long essays. I almost didn’t read it myself despite citing it as the starting point for this article. Here’s the thesis:

…Over the past decade or so, outrage has become the default mode for politicians, pundits, critics and, with the rise of social media, the rest of us. When something outrageous happens—when a posh London block installs anti-homeless spikes, or when Khloé Kardashian wears a Native American headdress, or, for that matter, when we read the horrifying details in the Senate’s torture report—it’s easy to anticipate the cycle that follows: anger, sarcasm, recrimination, piling on; defenses and counterattacks; anger at the anger, disdain for the outraged; sometimes, an apology … and on to the next. Twitter and Facebook make it easier than ever to participate from home…

Not being a heavy Twitter or Facebook user, I miss out on a lot of the excitement. I do, however, use reddit quite a bit, and it’s fascinating to see outrage there. Although the 140 character limit is a factor, longer discourse doesn’t fix it. The reddit community tends to be contrarian and smug, which builds in the “second opinion bias” that also causes outrage. The Slate essays explain this much better than I can, but I would attribute a culture of outrage to 2 things. First, we have a lack of context and research that we would expect from journalists but can’t expect from social media and citizen journalists. Second, we have a natural bias towards evidence and opinions that confirm our worldview.

Who’s fault is it: the medium or us? The internet as a medium has no intention or agenda: it simply facilitates human thought and communication. Even so, the medium has constraints that play into outrage, and it’s tough to blame individuals when we are presented with information (such as in 140 character snippets)  that we intrinsically react rashly to. We have cognitive biases: we know them, and we have had them well before the internet, from sound bites on TV to parlor room arguments before that. An important difference is the exponential influence of the internet, which scales previously limited instances of outrage from the mind of one person into a viral phenomena across the world.

I would like to present a challenge to the platforms that exist out there. I think sites like Twitter, Facebook, and reddit publicly take a hands-off approach to these issues and push for democratized, unregulated platforms (short of illegal activity). With my limited knowledge of user experience, however, I find this position disingenuous: the interface and platform itself can bias our behavior tremendously. Sometimes it is implicit, like the positioning of buttons, or explicit, like Facebook filtering our newsfeed. I think these sites should accept both the role they play in facilitating discourse and what we know about human biases. We need platforms that encourage better discourse.

Of course, maybe they are looking into these things: smart people work at these companies, so I hope they’re doing their homework. I just write a blog.

Even so, I should also do my best to encourage discourse through my blog. Like the Slate writers, here’s my story. A few months back, I started writing less about personal events and more about issues and ideas in my blog. I don’t have any hard numbers, but I noticed an odd trend through various metrics. There was a negative correlation between audience engagement and the thought I had put into the post. In other words, my less thoughtful pieces tended to get more activity than my more thoughtful ones.

Here’s my theory. When I put more thought into a blog post, the result is usually messy, and my blog post ends without firm conclusions and having argued both sides. Less thoughtful pieces end up more polemical that leave reader with stronger feeling, either in agreement or disagreement. I think they’re less interesting, but they’re easier to get into and respond to.

I could also be totally self-centered in my analysis. Truth be told, I don’t really know what my audience likes to read about. I just write and hope others find topics as interesting as I do.

Who is using Facebook these days?

(Author’s note: I embrace the irony that most of my readers will come from the facebook link)

I often use my younger cousins to find out what’s going on with kids these days. A few weeks ago, I asked them to explain what “ratchet” meant. They tried to explain. I still don’t think I get it.

Something I understand but don’t really get is that kids these days don’t use Facebook anymore. Apparently they use Instagram and Snapchat instead. When I was their age, we were all about Facebook because it had just expanded membership to high school students, and it was the cool thing that our recently departed college friends had. Consequently, I think that most of my Facebook friends to this day are high school friends. In any case, apparently Facebook is for their parents now, so kids don’t want to use it. Instead, they prefer newer, hipper services that old people haven’t caught onto, albeit with much more limited functionality.

However, it is disingenuous for me to tease my cousins for not using Facebook when I myself am not a heavy Facebook user anymore. The truth is that I honestly am not that interested in most of the content and don’t feel the need to share much myself.

I detailed most of my behavior in this blog post. To recap, I do like Facebook as a public address book that doesn’t require explicit exchange of contact details. Most regular status updates are uninteresting because I’m not close to most of my Facebook friends anymore. And for links to other content, I trust the masses on reddit to filter content better than suggestions from individuals, even if I do know them personally

In that blog post, I mentioned that I am in a group chat on Google Hangouts with some college friends. With about 20,000 messages in 5 months, it has been very active. I describe it as all of us sitting in a room together talking, except that we can all talk at the same time without interrupting each other. As such, there are usually several active topics, and they range from deep to ridiculous, significant to mundane, sports to politics. When we meet in real life, we refer to the group chat like regular conversation, which we expect everyone to keep up with despite the volume.

Interestingly, I have been posting content to the group chat that is similar to Facebook statuses: random pictures from events and daily life, links to interesting content I find on the internet, and thoughts off the top of my head. Despite my reluctance to share on Facebook, I’m happy to chat about the minutia I scroll past on Facebook.

I think the difference is the audience and context. Instead of sharing or consuming with hundreds, it’s the 10-ish that I actually talk to and interact with on a regular basis. And instead of an open platform more akin to public broadcast to newsfeeds everywhere, I’m in a more synchronous exchange with others. Although social networks offered new and exciting ways to connect, I’m reverting to a medium more in common with traditional face-to-face.

As for Facebook, there are a few types of commonly bemoaned content that I see. One is the controversial or politicized link or comment that inevitably leads to strongly-worded arguments. Another is the sad, vaguely-worded post about something bad that happened that isn’t elaborated on. And there’s the rallying outrage post about some issue.

These topics are similar in that they are best shared in smaller settings, yet we find some ego-directed satisfaction in sharing them publicly. Politics are always tricky to discuss, but it’s better to sit face-to-face with the intent to understand and not to argue. And yet we know that it’s bait for the most ardent responders who care to write long responses. Misery does need company, but I think most people actually respond better to a heartfelt conversation rather than a short, sympathetic comments and likes. And outrage on social media seems to be the new norm that makes us feel good in garnering likes while often doing little to enact change.

Facebook as a big platform is good for big things. For engagements and pregnancies, it’s a efficient way to share news with a lot of people. And social media has also been an effective forum for organizing political activism. But for most people, daily life isn’t that exciting, and a network that gives everyone a soap box (with status updates) and a feeling of impact (with the “Like” button) isn’t conducive to meaningful communication.

Despite my dire misgivings about Facebook, I still can’t quit it entirely. I often can’t even resist typing it into my address bar when I already know there’s not much for me. There are just too many darn people on it. I guess, in at least one way, I can relate to kids these days.