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Outrage Overload: How Social Media Skews Our View of the World

outrageThis morning I woke up after a full 8-hour night’s sleep (OMG!!!), and even though my neck has been hurting ever since I bought these new luxuriously large pillows (neck pain = luxury tax), I felt pretty good. The sun was out, I knew the air would be crisp. I like cold, clear days like that. The snap of fall. The wind hitting my face puts a spring in my step. (Or maybe that’s the wind hitting my butt.) I put my wool coat on, took my daughter to school, walked a couple brisk blocks to do some errands, then sat down for a quick coffee at this place I don’t get to go to very often that makes the best lattes in the world. Then I did what I’ve grown too accustomed to doing: I pointed my phone’s browser to Facebook.

Maureen Dowd said something stupid about Bill de Blasio and his wife. Someone made a joke about being worried their plane would crash. Someone else made a joke about airports sucking because their flight got cancelled. (I’m friends with a lot of comics. Success = being on the road = airport drama = luxury tax.) The Philippines. It was all scrolling at me so fast. Actually, I was scrolling through it fast, but it doesn’t seem that way, does it? We don’t feel like we’re the ones captaining the ship when we’re on social media, do we? Depending on what industry you’re in, it doesn’t seem like we have a choice about how frequently and to what extent we use social media and what it exposes us to. It’s the 24-hour news cycle brought to you at lightning speed, and it’s destroying our brains. Not just because social media is turning us into a nation of self-obsessed, zombie dopamine addicts, as this great infographic depicts. But because social media lives in “outrage world,” as Emily Gould once called it, and when we live on or through social media, we get outrage overload.

Gould used the term “outrage world” back in 2010 to describe the topics and tone feminist blogs like Jezebel use to gin up page views, but social media use has majorly intensified in the last three years, and now sites like Facebook and Twitter are outrage universes, filled with gateways to individual outrage worlds (links to blog posts, news stories, infographics, videos). Sure, Facebook and Twitter have their share of jokes and memes and cat pictures, too, but the sound of the noise overall is outrage, humor being inclusive. As I almost wrote on Facebook this morning while I sat sipping my latte before I realized I would just be making myself part of the problem (yet again), “It only takes 10 minutes on Facebook to ruin whatever bliss you might have woken up with.”

This is killing us. The noise of the negative, the outrage overload, it is very, very bad for how we relate to one another. It makes us not want to relate to one another. There’s something about staring down the black hole of social media all day that not only dehumanizes us, but causes us to see the world around us as a bad place filled with nasty, awful people who don’t deserve any love and respect. We walk around not just detached and isolated due to burgeoning high levels of self-involvement or image-consciousness, we walk around angry. We carry a low-grade bitterness with us everywhere we go. Simply put, we have stopped giving one another the benefit of the doubt. That’s partially due to bad news overload – we wonder who next to us is potentially is the next mass shooter (for example), and partially because we know that everyone is silently judging each other from a place of fear in a way that is much more profound than any overt, obvious face-to-face judgement we might have felt in the years before social media.

I can remember standing on the train platform in Astoria when I was very young and poor and had no style and had just moved to New York, looking at these women who were slightly older and seemed to have more money and were certainly more put together and waiting for one of them to look me over – as people used to do when we actually looked at each other – and sort of smirk or roll her eyes. That kind of behavior stung, but it also made sense. It was a more accomplished woman’s way of telling me to get it together if I wanted to compete in New York City. Of being smugly self-satisfied about what she had accomplished in the years since she had first gotten off the bus from Kansas. In hindsight, a decade later, that kind of interaction seems quaint and charming compared to the horror of having someone take your photo unbeknownst to you, then post it on the Internet for everyone to collectively roll their eyes at, without needing the balls to do so to your face. That is Internet-era fear and self-loathing projected outwards. It is ugly and full of cowardice. No wonder people are bitter.

As I walk through the world, taking the train, the bus, walking down the street, I note all the time how the isolation of the digital era causes people to behave callously or to be cold toward one another. While riding the subway yesterday, I sneezed, into the crook of my arm, of course, because I learned when my daughter was a toddler that that’s the proper way to avoid spreading germs. No one said bless you. Not even the man standing directly above me. I had done the right thing and sneezed properly, why didn’t anyone else do the right thing and say, using an antiquated phrase, “Hey man, I hope you don’t get a cold.” Bless you. It’s like sneezing offers the last opportunity for us Westerners to use our Namaste. Later, during the same ride, I was standing next to a man who had headphones in. Another man was trying to exit the train, and said “excuse me” three times. The third time he got quite loud, because the guy in headphones couldn’t hear him, then the guy in headphones took them out and said, “Say something, you asshole.” I piped up, “He did, three times, you didn’t hear him.” But he didn’t hear me, because he put his headphones back in immediately after calling the other guy an asshole, convinced, of course, that his assessment of the situation based on his very limited awareness of what was going on around him thanks to his self-absorption was correct. He must have seen my lips move, though, because he took his headphones out and said, “What?” So I repeated myself. “He did say excuse me, three times, but you didn’t hear him, because of your headphones.” He looked at the earbud in his hand, shrugged, and put it back in his ear. No dawning realization that he had been the jerk, not even a real, “Oh.” Just a shrug.

That is the world on social media and outrage. No bless yous, because everyone’s an asshole. Shrug.

All hope is not lost, though. After the guy put his headphones back in a second time, a few people around me looked at me and smiled or snickered, like they knew he was a jerk, and they couldn’t believe he couldn’t see it. They saw me, they saw themselves, we saw ourselves in each other. There was a collective reprieve, a moment of levity and slight joy. Not at headphone guy’s expense, but at the ridiculousness of the world, such as it has become. When I got off the train, I headed to a meeting at Starbucks, and a woman accidentally cut in line in front of me. She realized what she’d done and not only did she apologize, she bought my coffee. Then I, to pay it forward, took the tray of sample holiday drinks the employees had just set on the counter and walked them down the line, offering them to everyone waiting to place an order. A young girl next to me looked at me and said, “Can I hug you? It’s so hard to live in a city like this without people like you around. Thank you.” It was the greatest little thing. She was happy. She felt inspired. Most importantly, though, I think witnessing my willful act of connection made her feel less alone.

Yes, “the world is falling apart” as one friend said this morning on social media, and there are plenty of things to be rightfully and righteously angry about. But as Lizzy Acker notes in this recent post on PolicyMic, “So, yeah, it’s terrible to wear blackface, and dressing your kid up like a Klan member is probably child abuse. But joining the pitchforked mob and storming the village idiot’s cottage with torches lets us off the hook about the real evil: the attitude of the town and the social and economic inequalities that exist within the systems we live in, which remain unchanged. Mobs don’t engage in meaningful discourse. They burn things [as] symbols. It’s time to add some complexity instead of just expressing outrage.” But, she says, that’s “harder to share on Facebook — and maybe that’s okay.”

I’m not against sharing articles of concern on social media (I not only share them, often times I’ve authored them), nor am I against taking in information about the world as chosen by those in our social networks, because like-minded people often care about similar causes. But I think we have to be careful not to be swallowed up by the noise of social media, and eaten alive by the negativity and outrage. Even by the nonsense. When social media is all-consuming, it has a dangerous effect on our opinions of strangers and makes the world feel unsafe and people seem unreasonable, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We must remember to be in control of what we consume, not controlled by it. We are the captain of the spaceship that flies through outrage universe and into outrage worlds. But once we’re done there, we must remember not to walk out into the world with all that noisy information in our heads, letting it pollute our vision. What a world full of fast and furious social media has taken from most of us is the opportunity to reflect on and process all of the information we’re taking in, before we let it turn into anger and frustration that gets automatically spit back out. The world is not full of assholes, unless we make it so. (Bless you.)

Photo credit: Flickr user B/CS Tea Party

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