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.