Is outrage the only mode of online discourse?

angry-twitter-birdThe Guardian recently published an opinion piece by writer and comedian Viv Groskop in which she claimed that “outrage has become the lingua franca of a generation”.

She bemoaned the fact “words and opinions are less important than the emotions behind them” and laid part of the blame on the increasing use of social media.

The necessity for brevity on both Twitter and Facebook gives more punch than intended to any opinion. And the proliferation of information competing for our attention encourages everyone to shout louder and more passionately.”

While I think there’s an element of digital dualism in Groskop’s argument, particularly when she claims that “internet anonymity makes people say things they would never say to anyone’s face” (my emphasis), she makes an important point about the growing need to be seen to react to events.

A sense of massive anger and personal offence is now the appropriate response to any news event or cultural manifestation. Is the event something that any sensible person would automatically be outraged by and therefore it’s pointless to express outrage? Then you must express it all the more.”

It’s a topic that PhD student Michael Sacasas elegantly touched upon in a blog about his own desire to react to events.

I felt the need to post something — something appropriate, something with sufficient gravitas. But I asked myself why? Why should I feel the need to post anything? To what end? So that others may note that I responded to the tragedy with just the right measure of grace and seriousness? Or to self-righteously admonish others, implicitly of course, about their own failure to respond as I deemed appropriate?

Highlighting the “stunning degree of self-indulgence invited by social media”, Sacass concludes that “when we become accustomed to living and thinking in public, the value of unseen action and unshared thoughts is eclipsed”.

Coping with the blurring of our social circles

The innate need to react to what’s happening in the world around us and our desire to share our opinion with other people is not a recent phenomenon. However, social media offers us all a quick and accessible way to do this with a larger number of people.

For many of us, the blurring of our social circles within the online networks we use, causes us to avoid having an opinion about anything that could be challenged by a friend or follower.

Twitter, in particular, is a network in which, unless we lock our profile, we’re very conscious of the fact that anyone can read and react to what we say.

As psychotherapist Dr Aaron Balick notes in his blog, in every situation we ‘subtly shift the way we behave in order to ‘fit in’ the best we can, with the new grouping of people’.

In this way, our use of social media is no different to the way we conduct ourselves in any social situation, on or offline. The only difference being, within social media, we bring all our social circles (and very often strangers too) together in the same place.

Safe tweeting

As Groskop highlighted, many of us, particularly when wearing a mask of anonymity, look to be outraged at the most mundane things.

I wonder whether this is because many of us actually ignore the bigger, more important societal issues that require more depth of thought and, instead, fall back on news and events that don’t really require us to think and also unite opinion.

In seeking validation through likes and re-tweets, and without the tools (such as a dislike button) to dismantle the opinion of those with whom we disagree – without risking a very public trading of views – do we (in the same way we would when meeting our partner’s parents for the first time or going for a drink with our boss) avoid saying anything that might be deemed at all controversial?

Is our desire to avoid divisive issues (and risk creating offence or public confrontation) particular to or even influenced by social media use, or more evidence that our online behaviour simply reflects how we conduct ourselves in our day-to-day lives when faced with the same group of people?

[Image courtesy of JNS]