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‘Internet Outrage Engine’ Shows No Sign of Slowing

If social media were someone we were collectively dating or were married to, perhaps it would be time to talk about breaking up.

For all the joy it can bring us (instantaneous communication; funny cat photos; live commentary on important sports events), social media pushes our buttons. I can’t think of anything in so-called real life that so consistently enrages and annoys, encouraging people I know to expose the worst parts of their personality.

Cranky people online are not new. I’ve probably been one of them since, say, the late 1990s.

But, at least for people who spend a lot of time online, the ubiquity of social media — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, dozens of others some interact with every day — has allowed us to fall into a comfort zone of pure id. We react to things when they happen as they happen, and our guard is down; we’re apt to pile on to commentary about breaking news or to join an online mob when someone is exposed as saying something racist or when they simply make a mistake.

We’re quick to outrage, slow to apologize or even go back and acknowledge when we’ve overreacted.

Sometimes, the outrage is warranted. When Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was revealed to have some very outdated ideas about race, NBA players and millions of others took to Twitter to express anger and disbelief. Some tweets were eloquent, others much less so.

But even when being offended is warranted, there’s a piling on magnified by Twitter’s echo-chamber effect. It becomes a game of hashtag bloodsport, each person trying to top everyone else with the cleverest, most succinct take on that day’s drama. The person who gets retweeted most wins, even if it’s preaching to the choir.

Of course, having the reaction that stands out most can also lead to trouble. Lean too far into the outrage and you could end up offending others. It’s a line that comedians have had to be increasingly aware of even as they try to skate as close to the edge of acceptable for the sake of humor.

Jenny Johnson, a popular Houston writer who has found fame on Twitter, gained notoriety for a Twitter feud she had with singer Chris Brown in 2012. The exchange got so heated Brown deleted his Twitter account. In March, Johnson appeared on a South by Southwest Interactive panel with other Twitter comics, discussing the perks and perils of Twitter comedy. But a few months later, Johnson herself caught a wave of Twitter protest for tweets about Kim Kardashian, accused by some of leaning too much on racial humor.

Johnson’s unapologetic response? A string of tweets about race.

The more well-known someone is, the more likely it is that everything they post online will be scrutinized and reacted to unfavorably. Actors Alec Baldwin and Shia LeBeouf, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, artist Kanye West and singer Rihanna all seem to have love/hate relationships with the instant-reaction culture of social media, engaging in angry debates or provoking fans when they’re not deleting accounts or ducking bad press generated from what they post.

Why do we react so strongly to these things, becoming what the New York Post once called in a headline, “The Internet Outrage Factory?” What sets us off?

Andrew Dillon, dean of the University of Texas School of Information, says research shows that during all that time we spend staring at screens, more effort is required to achieve the same comprehension as getting our information from paper. And separately, online it feels like we’re engaging in an online conversation, rarely pausing to reflect for deeper meaning before we weigh in. “Not only does this increase the speed of response, but it tends to suppress careful consideration and deep discussion, leading often to decontextualized commentary and a breakdown in shared understanding,” Dillon said.

This becomes troubling when you consider how much of what’s posted online, even from reliable sources, can be out of context or simply wrong. Late last year, when a New Jersey waitress posted that customers refused to tip her because she was gay, the Internet exploded in outrage, decrying her mistreatment. It turned out she made up the incident and was later fired from her job.

The Internet is rarely what it seems. We fall victim to clever marketing tricks. We pass on bad information because it’s there and we want to be first, to show that we’re in the know.

But it’s also possible that the alternative is worse. At least we have channels where anyone’s voice can carry further than ever before, where collective speech is easy to corral into something useful, or at least something that can be acknowledged.

I don’t think the anger is very healthy for us, but at least social media hasn’t turned us into passive drones, unable to think or feel or react.