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Why Is Internet Outrage So Popular?

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
July 11, 2014

On the off chance you’re having trouble coming up with something to be outraged about, how about outrage itself?

That’s more or less what the always-entertaining writer Teddy Wayne did the other day in The New York Times, casting a critical eye on online outrage — the, loud, all-caps, hypercritical discourse that has come to be a routine feature of the World Wide Web. “Bile” is not new to Internet life, he conceded. But “the last few years have seen it crawl from under the shadowy bridges patrolled by anonymous trolls,” he argued, “and emerge into the sunshine of social media, where people proudly trumpet their ethical outrage.”

Indeed, Wayne cites a study that made the rounds last year — presumably because it was so outraging? — arguing that “Anger is More Influential Than Joy.”

He has a point: Social media really does seem to have upped the outrage quotient in public discourse. Angry denunciation, evidently, is highly “shareable,” as digital gurus like to say.

Why is that? Surely there are many reasons, but the most interesting one is also, curiously, the most upbeat: Haterade helps us make friends.

That, at least, is the suggestion of an earlier study with the fabulous title “Interpersonal chemistry through negativity: Bonding by sharing negative attitudes about others.”

That research, described here by Aaron Retica, writing for The New York Times Magazine, suggested that “one of the surest routes to friendship is disliking the same things about other people.”

Notably, the study included asking subjects whether they thought they would enjoy meeting someone whose likes and dislikes they’d learned about. Turned out shared negativity was a stronger indicator of getting along than mutual enthusiasm.

And if you think about the vitriol in your own social media feeds, doesn’t this ring true? Nobody spewing venom about political figures, celebrities, tech companies, or current events is changing anyone else’s mind. Thus, we unfriend or ignore those whose outrage we disagree with.

But when others’ outrage echoes our own, it’s different. Maybe they (we) are properly signalling to the like-minded about our common ground — that is, where we can all come together and hate the same things.

Lately, for instance, I’ve noticed a lot of Facebook and Twitter contacts endorsing a boycott of Hobby Lobby, in connection with the Supreme Court’s decision that such private firms can opt out of covering birth control under the Affordable Care Act if religious objections come into play. More specifically, I’ve noticed this boycott idea being pushed by people who I am quite sure have never visited a Hobby Lobby in their lives.

(I suppose this falls into the category that writer Tom Vanderbilt suggested on Twitter recently ought to be called the “fauxcott.” Useless as a practical tactic, it functions purely as a way to announce outrage — and perhaps find community in discontent.)

And, really, it’s not particularly outrageous to concede that what we’re against says as much as what we are for: “Fandom involves anti-fandom,” as a scholar on both subjects once put it. “Think of the Star Wars fan who hates Trek, since his galaxy isn’t big enough for both franchises.” Presumably similar logic applies to the MSNBC zealot who can’t stop attacking FOX News, and vice versa.

Again, the opposite of a fan club is not wholly new. But such scenarios do seem more prevalent, for reasons both technical and cultural. Even more recently, and even more bluntly, a post on the online magazine The Toast invited writers to share “The Books You Hate The Most.” Specifically: “The books we hate so much it makes us glad to exist, that we can play host to so pure and so fervent a hatred it feels like a blessing.” There are about 1,400 responses so far.

Outrage may also be underrated as a creative spark: The critic A.O. Scott once argued that Margaret Thatcher enraged so many people who channeled their anger and talent into art that she functioned as a kind of “anti-muse.” Even here, I’d argue that shared outrage was crucial: Surely a community of creative vitriol-makers and their like-minded fans depends largely on a common enemy.

None of this, of course, is an endorsement of outrage, which does cheapen and darken social-media discourse, and in most cases has no particular effect apart from ruining everyone’s day. But still. It’s worth recognizing that outrage isn’t just a social dissolvent — it’s also a social glue.

So if you find the trend hateful — well, maybe you should go online and declare your disgust? You might even make some friends who are outraged by outrage, too.

Write to me at rwalkeryn@yahoo.com or find me on Twitter, @notrobwalker. RSS lover? Paste this URL into your reader of choice: https://www.yahoo.com/tech/author/rob-walker/rss.