Outrage is everywhere. It might feel like a hangover from 2016’s polarizing elections, but it isn’t. Outrage culture is the most viral meme out there.
Memetics & Provocation
Social media opens a world of connections to us. The internet allows us access to practically the entire history of human thought, with millions of new memes generated every day. There’s a lot going on.
The current dynamics of the internet create a memetic pressure cooker. All memes are subject to selection pressures. There is simply so much going on, so many attacks in the war for your attention, that it’s not possible to process it all. We’ve never seen such competition for the scarce resources of your time and eyeballs.
The most viral wins. Memes need us to repeat them to survive. How do you get people to repeat something? You provoke them. Something needs to grab the attention, and spur the beholder to repeat the message. Note that repetition doesn’t mean agreement – “RTs are not endorsements”, as the Twitter cliche goes. A sarcastically-quoted tweet is still a repetition. The goal is to get as many repetitions as possible, regardless of how they’re gotten.
Provocation is the quickest path to virulence. It spurs action from those that agree and those that don’t. And nothing provokes like outrage.
The Outrage Virus
Outrage is one of the most powerful memes we know. History is full of examples. Think of how the town square would be packed for executions and witch-burnings. Think of how whole countries turn on the treasonous, with outrage so powerful it can last for centuries. The “Two Minutes Hate” was such a powerful literary device for just this reason.
Outrage online rises above the feed. Cat photo, wedding post, sports score… what’s this? Islamist rapes Swedish woman? White male Stanford swimmer rapes classmate, gets off easy? George Soros is funding the West’s deconstruction? They’re putting PEAS in my fucking GUACAMOLE?
Hatred, anger, seething rage. Every time. Every article, every tweet, every post, hits that little button. Scandal! The fucking monsters. How is nobody doing anything about this? Why do they keep getting away with it?
And you’ll click that little “retweet” or “share” button, and push out your thoughts on it to the world. They have to learn, don’t they? You can’t just let things stand. You gotta do something.
Over, and over, and over.
The memetic swamp is a ruthless environment, and outrage is especially well adapted.
A Million Bits Make A Culture
Memes don’t stand in isolation. They form groups. Once you’ve adopted memes for one worldview, or circumstance, it becomes progressively easier for similar memes to latch on. If you believe the Clintons are running an underground pedophile ring, it’s easy to buy the claim that Obama was a part of it, too. After all, what was he doing shipping 10,000 “hot dogs and pizzas” to the White House? If Trump’s a Russian puppet, it’s not a stretch to think Bernie Sanders was in on it too, right? Only someone under Putin’s spell could have disliked Hillary. All those people packing rallies across the country… poor souls, fooled by Sputnik and RT.
Take all the individual bits of outrage together, and they form a group. The outrage memes become outrage culture. And every successive meme is just that little bit easier to fall for.
You may have noticed the effects of this yourself. You see a climate-skeptic piece in the New York Times. When will these fucking assholes stop praying at the altar of White Jesus and ExxonMobil? I’ve had it up to here with this anti-science, backwards, Republican bullshit! You see a commentator writing up a tweetstorm about how the Times really crossed the line this time. Fuck reading the article, there’s an opportunity here! Retweet, add a “thread.” comment, feel the hate flow through you.
You see that those elitist Ivy League fucks are putting “strength is NOT masculine” posters up on gym mirrors. What is wrong with these fucking cuck university administrators? Fifty-eight genders, Marxist professors, and now they’re shaming me for my fucking weightlifting? Academia is dead, to hell with the lot of them. We should seize their endowments. (Never mind that it was students, not administrators, putting the signs up).
Every new piece of evidence fuels the outrage. It calls back to the outrage you’ve already stored within yourself. More evidence! More fuel for the fire!
Outrage is winning in the memetic free market. There are no editors on social media. Every meme faces the market by itself, hoping that it will replicate. It just happens to be the case that outrage is an extremely effective replicator.
And the more outrage you’ve been exposed to, the easier it is for the next meme to replicate. Repetition creates the illusion of truth. With every outrage meme, the world appears more worthy of outrage.
Now it’s everywhere. Outraged mobs of MAGA maniacs and “anti fascists” are literally doing battle in the streets. NYT readers are literally canceling subscriptions over a conservative columnist. Trumpers are literally boycotting Nordstrom for cutting the President’s daughter’s clothing line. Is any of this sane?
Social media is darkening our worldviews. Every exposure entrenches the effect. Algorithms serve up the most-engaged-with content. Of course, it’s the latest Trump gaffe that shows up. Or the latest refugee rape. Or the disgrace in some small Louisiana town, or some Kurdish girl who can’t go to school because the Taliban threatened her. Memetic effects will bubble up local news from halfway across the world, to satisfy the need for more outrage.
This isn’t an online thing. This is a reality thing. Your entire view of the world is being modified by what you read.
Do you notice that you’re a little more stressed than usual, reading the news? Doesn’t matter which side of the political divide you’re on – outrage culture has brought something for everyone. Hell, even if it’s only your side that did something outrage worthy this time, you can react to the reaction! Typical libtards, ignorant of when Obama did it. Always lying. Typical redneck, don’t you see he’s playing you all for fools? Focus on the tax returns!
There is no cure for this. The genie is out of the bottle. Social media and instant connectivity are Pandora’s box – we brought all the memes out into the world, and now we’ve just got to deal with whichever ones outcompete the others.
What you can do is limit your exposure. Don’t follow accounts that spread outrage. This includes many ‘respectable’ news sources. The memetics will get to them if they haven’t already – outrage is necessary for the bottom line, nowadays. Don’t participate in flame wars. And, please – don’t be an outrage repeater. Do what you can to limit the spread of the virus.
You’ll be exposed nonetheless, of course. CNN at the airport lounge. A coworker rushing over with their phone to show you the latest outrage. Talk radio in your taxicab. Newspaper headlines as you’re buying an energy drink. The less you’ve been exposed to outrage, the more outrageous any individual meme will have to be to get to you.
You can survive the occasional exposure without damage to your mental health. But you can’t survive multiple exposures a day. We’ll see if our society is able to.
Nothing like being outraged about outrage, huh? Feels good. If you’re interested in memetics and the information society, join thousands: subscribe for email updates and follow me on Twitter, where I also post daily.