The Outrage Machine

Over at Garbage Day, Ryan Broderick discusses A Unified Theory of Online Anger, noting how algorithmic social media has effectively been weaponized (notably by the right, but let’s be honest, not just by them). They’re not wrong.

As these trending main characters go viral on Twitter, hundreds of online outlets race to turn this into content. And there’s a real financial incentive for covering these stories. As most people working at various content mines can tell you, the thing Facebook readers love the most is getting mad about stuff that’s happening on Twitter.

Ryan Broderick

I think this is an important point: it’s not as simple as pointing at just one source as the culprit. The outrage generated from one source is monetized and fed into other places, creating this morass of often misplaced anger, propaganda, and misinformation, gaining inertia at each stop along the way.

Addressing this sort of infinite outrage machine is a hard problem. It’s unlikely to go away any time soon – it’s too easy, too lucrative, and too useful to those in control. Even if you suddenly decided to regulate it or make companies liable for the hate spewed on their sites, many bad actors in this space aren’t even in jurisdictions we can reach. So what do you do, shut down the sites? Good luck! Sites like Facebook and Twitter became popular because they were serving a desire people had, and simply shutting them down does nothing to ameliorate those desires. At best, shutting down the social media whales would fracture the audience, and thus possibly mitigate the impact of this sort of vicious cycle. (And I think even that is an optimistic view.)

We talk about how social media has grown and evolved since it started, but I don’t think we examine the term “evolve” as much as we should: evolution is in response to its surroundings, specialization in response to what it’s consuming and the environment it finds itself in. That evolution isn’t necessarily good for its surroundings – in the case of social media, it has evolved to thrive in a toxic environment, at the cost of the wellbeing of society.

I was an early adopter of social media, both conceptually and in terms of the current tools we use. I was around for the early discussions of maybe using a # with a keyword to make a searchable taxonomy to group discussions of events on Twitter, and using @ with a username to respond to someone directly (both of which are now baked into nearly every platform I can think of). There are useful aspects to social media, and also ideas that came from social media that have proven useful in other spaces. But at this point, I’m only occasionally on Twitter or Facebook, interact on them even less, and regularly debate with myself on whether I should be on them at all. If I do manage to pull that trigger and extricate myself from those sites, do I want to remove myself from social media in general, or just a rule of no more algorithms?