The outrage cycle, or why trolling works

Thanks to the world’sĀ esteemedĀ opinion writers, we’ve recently learned why ‘Chinese Mothers are Superior‘, how ‘bogans in shopping centres have no souls‘, and, thanks to Mark Latham, that “anyone who chooses a life without children, as [Australian Prime Minister] Gillard has, cannot have much love in them”.

Trolls the lot of them. Deliberately offensive flamebait.

Now, with a line up of Catherine Deveny, Gerard Henderson and Graham Richardson, I suspect we’re likely to be further ‘enlightened’ by QandA tonight as well.

I wrote recently about the benefits of social reading – that social media can provide a better reading experience than editorially made traditional media – but I’ve since realised that trolling is the clear and present downside downside to this. This post explores how this dynamic works.

My thinking goes like this:

  • Traditional print newspapers have long offered a public reading experience. That is, the newspaper you’d read would be clearly evident as you carried it out of the newsagent, picked it up off your doorstop or got your butler to iron it. Reading The Guardian or The Times or The Sydney Morning Herald or the Daily Telegraph would say something clear about you to the viewing world. In some ways the carrying of a newspaper would be a small insertion of a particular ideological argument into the physical public sphere.
  • TV, on the other hand, has largely provided a private watching experience. Your friends and neighbours can’t, usually, tell what you’re watching. You might talk about the programs you watched later, but this is a choice. Your TV watching, enclosed by the walls of your lounge room, is not inherently revelatory about you or your ideas.
  • The early masthead news providers of the internet (The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The New York Times, theĀ CNN or theĀ BBC etc) – have also provided an inherently private reading experience. Like your lounge room enclosed TV, no one really knows what news you click on.
  • Social media, however, returns us to a more public reading experience. We read from our social network, and we link back into our network that which represents us. Interest becomes a key aspect of identity.

In my previous post I wroteĀ that this was a good thing – that social media would provide a more socially responsible reading experience, more responsible, in particular, than the masthead web. I still believe that’s true. I still believe that social media is more likely to provide information, news and opinion that speaks to our better angels than our base instincts.

Yet what I didn’t touch on then was the downside – that this same dynamic leaves us particularly susceptible to trolls. That is, while opinion writers have always sought to provoke us, there’s a different dynamic at play that changes the equation.

In a private media experience – TV or masthead web – we can easily turn off or ignore the opinions with which we disagree. In the traditional public media experience of the newspaper, our opinions only count if we’re likely to stop buying the newspaper. We might grumble into our muesli, or even bellow to our friends that we’ll never read that paper again (“Oh, you’ve stopped reading The Australian following the Iraq War? I haven’t read them since the Whitlam dismissal“). But this can only have a small network effect, and (as a business strategy) can only induce audiences to buy or not to buy based on their longterm assessment of what that paper provides. Traditional newspapers – like tribes – are not likely to be decided on over one article.

Yet the shift to social media means we no longer read mastheads for their own sake (or the sake of the tribal brand) – instead we’re attracted to the particular articles which most interests us individually. This might be stimulating ideas and discussion, or it might be that which enrages us most.

Think about it: what are you likely to provide links to on Twitter or Facebook? For many of us, it’s either things that we really like, or things that we really hate, with our clear rejection stating that. Linking to either of these allows us to represent ourselves in a certain light to the online public sphere.

The problem is that as social network linking is now becoming a serious part of news organisations’ business or audience connection models, big media organisations (The Australian and the ABC in particular in Australia) seem to be realising that offending our sense of outrage is easier and cheaper than producing content that stimulates our intellect. We might all be more socially responsible, but being constantly (and professionally) trolled doesn’t make for a pleasurable reading experience.

Just a final, academic thought: It’d be interesting to test this argument.Ā Here’s a simple method. Ask a bunch of people to spend 20 minutes reading the news on the internet – you might set them a small task to do, like read enough to be able to answer a ‘What’s happening right now’ type quiz, or perhaps just give them free time on the internet while waiting for something else. Randomly divide them into two groups. People in both groups are free to read whatever they like, but set up a small program such that for one group everything they click on is posted to Twitter or Facebook under their name.



Image by flickr user cycle60

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