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The Outrage Economy: Go Ahead, Get Angry

by Nate St. Pierre on September 8, 2014

I just checked the internet, and don’t worry – everyone’s still upset about everything.

I sometimes wonder when we allowed this to become the norm. Outrage has become a form of cosmic radiation, the (un)natural background noise to our online existence.

If you want an example, just head down to the comments section of any major news article. Any one, go ahead. I’ll wait…

That’s what the constant buzz of outrage looks like, and why I think we should get rid of comments on major news sites. But that’s just part of it – that’s just the dull roar in the background, and can usually be ignored if you choose.

The more problematic issue is the fact that outrage is one of the primary drivers of “news” coverage (and yes, I use that term loosely). A sizable percentage of the media generated on a daily basis is deliberately meant to push our buttons as consumers and move us along the spectrum towards outrage.

It works like this because when you feel offended, when you feel righteous indignation, when you feel like you want to confront anyone who has the gall to fall on the opposite side of your opinion on a certain topic, that’s when you’re the most valuable to the media producer. Humans have a natural desire for stimulation, and one of the things the modern web does well is give people an outlet for confrontation without risk: you can engage in a heated, vein-popping battle with RSmith701 from Atlanta one minute, and walk to your fridge and get a soda the next. It’s like an artificial emotional high.

Content providers, especially news and media sites, figured this out a long time ago, and learned that they make more money when they get you riled up. Outrage about a certain topic leads to more media consumption on that topic, more social sharing of said media, more interaction (arguments) in the comments and on the site’s social platforms, more time spent on the site, and more repeat visits. All of that activity translates into more money for the content provider, since almost the entire web is built on advertising revenue based on pageviews.

But what’s really going to bake your noodle later on is when you realize that the news media is no different than any other supplier, and it relies on the demand of its customers to push its product.

The news media is a business, and it sells what you buy. Think about that. At the end of the day, we are the problem. Every time you get sucked into another clickbait/racebait/sexbait/culturebait article, you’re telling the mass media producers that it’s okay, and that you want more.

I’m sure you can think of a half-dozen examples of this off the top of your head right now, but I’ll give you an example: Taylor Swift’s latest song/video “Shake it Off” – have you heard that it’s racist?

If you have, you’re not alone. I’ll show you what the cycle looks like, using only the Huffington Post as an example (there are dozens more major media sites that do the same thing):

1. Taylor Swift releases her video, 900 million people love it, 6 think it’s racist
2. HuffPo covers the release in multiple articles
3. One B-list rapper claims (without watching it) that it’s racist and offensive
4. HuffPo covers the racism claim with a batch of new articles and interviews*
5. HuffPo covers its own coverage of the racism claim with more articles

*(To be fair, Marc Lamont Hill, whom I don’t always agree with, but do respect, looks like he’d rather be talking about more important things during his interview.)

And thus the great circle-jerk of life in the outrage economy is complete:

1. Cover an event
2. Cover negative reaction to event
3. Cover your coverage to said reaction, act like it’s a thing
4. Repeat

This example used HuffPo, but as I said, you can see the process repeated with any other major media outlet. This is how they direct your attention. This is how they make their money. This is how they win.

As an added bonus to situations like this, they get to start injecting academic phrases like “cultural appropriation” into the common vocabulary and tag these articles with it, which then opens up even more opportunity to seek out those things that may be offensive to a few, and propel them into the national spotlight, thus re-igniting the cycle with a new subject.

While writing this article, I did some searches to see if anyone else had coined the “outrage economy” term, and I found this brilliant explanation from Australia (from 5 years ago! and believe me, it’s only gotten worse):

If you want to do your own research on this, I’ll give you a few more examples, but I’m not going to link to the articles and give them exactly what they want. Besides, you can just watch the web news feeds for a few days, and you’ll see what I mean.

How Outrage Sells

  • Fox News’ “War on Christmas” (bonus: recurring yearly)
  • “Check your privilege” phrase (a liberal/social/racial favorite)
  • Prayer in public schools, a Christian favorite (unless it’s another religion’s prayer)
  • The homophobia epidemic claimed by the gay community (usually people with honest religious conflicts)
  • Every single political subject every time, forever
  • Boycotts! Pull sponsorships! (the favorite eternal battle of both Christian/gay communities)
  • Anti-business (this business is acting like a business!)
  • Anti-wealth (these people make more money than these other people!)
  • Anti-environmentalism (people don’t affect the environment!)
  • Anti-science (doesn’t matter if science is correct there – here it’s wrong because it doesn’t fit with my religious beliefs!)
  • Anti-intolerance (unless you’re intolerant of approved topics)

I could go on.

The bottom line is this: today it is ridiculously easy to find a raging horde to join, if raging hordes are your thing. And what’s sad about it is not only the fact that we can’t seem to escape it, but that so few seem to want to. Humans have an appetite for outrage, and media outlets of every kind are more than happy to serve it up. With all this emotional baggage hanging around our necks, I strongly feel that we carry too much.

There is one easy, sure-fire way to change the paradigm: see it for what it is, and simply stop engaging with it. Hopefully this article helps you see the system a little more clearly. The next step is up to you.

(Image source: John O’Nolan)

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