This week in "internet activism is not real activism" or "why is everyone so angry all the time?" the New York Times had an article in its Style section Thursday discussing the possible science behind "internet outrage" and what it says about the people who express it.
You can probably already tell where my views lie on this issue. I love psychology and sociology and understanding why people do what they do, but this article feels self-fulfilling. Let's write about how some research shows that if you are outraged online you are "angrier than the general population," and watch the inevitable fireworks.
To be fair, the research is interesting, even if it's from last year, and even if it actually studied Weibo, not a social media platform most Americans use, despite the story's focus on pretty U.S.-centric "outrage" targets. Beihang University in Beijing studied communications on Weibo and found that anger spread more easily than other emotions. "[A]lthough we tend to share the happiness only of people we are close to, we are willing to join in the rage of strangers," the Times says, paraphrasing Ryan Martin, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay.
The author of the Times piece, Teddy Wayne, grants that "outrage can function as a corrective or anguished expression of helplessness, punishing the offending party if he, she or it has not been given any official penalty," citing the case of George Zimmerman and, I'm assuming, the difference between Zimmerman's treatment by the courts and on social media. Wayne even suggests that online outrage might "double as effective activism, forcing a response from the powers that be."
But ultimately, this is the takeaway: "Internet outrage is the milquetoast [why is this word used so much in the Times??] cousin to direct action, a way to protest by tapping and clicking rather than boycotting and marching. It is a noble endeavor to become incensed about a cause and risk arrest or toil without acclamation for one's deeply held beliefs. Less honorable is joining a digital pile-on as a means of propping up one's ego, even if it comes in the form of entertaining zings."
How many different ways will people squeeze bylines out of the alleged inconsequentiality of online activism before we realize that by writing and reading and talking about this constantly we are actually validating online activism?
But lest we think that Mr. Wayne is not really just looking out for the best interests of internet arguers...
"Internet outrage often says more about the commenter than the cause, and its deployment may do more harm than good, to the instigator an the issue."
Essentially, watch your tone, lest your "moral superiority" damage your actual mission and "overshadow or diminish the complexity of a subject."
It seems pretty clear, though, that Wayne doesn't think there is any actual mission. He seems to lump online activists, run-of-the-mill angry people and trolls together, relying on experts who chalk online rants up to "impulse control" problems. No matter that some people might be "pre-disposed to outrage" because of complex life experiences exacerbated by cultural dysfunction. We're all just "enacting a defense mechanism reinforced by the very culture of Internet ire."
Wayne clearly has never suffered from the need to trigger this mechanism himself, since he believes it to be so successful as to actually act as some kind of buffer or protection bubble for those who do:
"To state one's rage is to insulate oneself from criticism in the acid bath of the web."
Tell that to the women, people of color and LGBT-identifying people who dare to express their "outrage" about sexism, racism, homophobia and transmisogyny online.