In Addition to Ragebait and Doomscrolling

by mike_hawke1 min read3rd Dec 202020 comments

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Social MediaPracticalRationality
Frontpage

(Sorry for the coy title--I want to give the reader a chance to guess what the addition is.)

 

One day I opened up the front page of reddit. I was not signed in and I was using my browser's incognito mode.

The following list composed about 25% of what I saw as I scrolled. See if you notice any themes. (As hinted by the title, I think there is something other than outrage here.)

 

r/MurderedByWords

r/PublicFreakout

r/insanepeoplefacebook

r/JusticeServed

r/nottheonion

r/facepalm

r/mildlyinfuriating

r/Cringetopia

r/TikTokCringe

r/LeopardsAteMyFace

r/FuckYouKaren

r/iamverybadass

r/IdiotsInCars

r/cringe

 

(At least another 25% was made up of r/news, r/worldnews, r/politics, r/PoliticalHumor, and so on.)

Like many people, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the psychotoxic effects of concentrated outrage, political polarization, doomscrolling, misinformation, and filter bubbles. So I was a little surprised by my own interpretation of the above list:

I submit that the most salient theme is contempt.

 

Here's a sentence that has been at the back of my mind since I came across it:

Scandal is great entertainment because it allows people to feel contempt, a moral emotion that gives feelings of moral superiority while asking nothing in return.

-- Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis

Let me first admit that contemptuously bonding over the misbehavior of others probably can have real benefits. But I claim that in the case of the reddit front page, these benefits are clearly outweighed by the costs to one’s personality (not to mention epistemics). 

So, Haidt says contempt feels good, reddit appears to be a prime example, and I'm now asserting that it's psychotoxic and possibly addictive (at least when taken via intravenous drip bottomless scrolling). Presuming that's all correct...is it actionable? I think so.

If you're ambitious, you could quit social media for a month and pay attention to how your thoughts and attitudes change.

More coordinationally, perhaps a social stigma can develop around this kind of overindulgence, similar to the increasing stigmas toward ragebait and doomscrolling.

But at the very least, you can simply notice that something you're reading is triggering contempt, as opposed to outrage or doomfeelz. I think this awareness by itself restores a decent chunk of mental autonomy. Personally, I like to also take the proactive step of rehearsing questions like, "why did they end up so supid/scandalous/cringeworthy?" and “what led me to avoid such faults so well?” I find that the answer (whatever it is) often feels strangely liberating--it diminishes the tasty allure of the contempt, and makes it easier to refocus my attention on something better.

EDIT: I thank Daniel Kokotajlo for offering the term scornporn in the comments!

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My first instinct when reading this was to open Reddit in incognito mode to attempt to reproduce the 25% measurement. I had intended to collect statistics of 100 posts. I closed it after <10 to avoid memetic contamination.

Minor nit, but it's worth noting that while /r/TikTokCringe started as a contempt subreddit, it's now just the main subreddit for TikTok content enjoyed genuinely.

I wonder if that is because /r/TTC couldn't figured out how to differentiate cringe from irony and post-irony, or if it just got big enough that /r/all converted it ?

I don't think that outrage is different from contempt in terms of being a free hit of righteous moral superiority. Outrage may create more motivation to do something, but that "something" will be biased towards protest and/or punishment, not actual problem-solving... and in the case of online media, the protest and/or punishment is likely to take the form of more posting to the same media outlet. So the optimally addictive mix would need both outrage and contempt. Too little contempt, and pure outrage would be exhausting. Too little outrage, and not enough people post vs. read.

For me, the optimum solution to these problems is to avoid as much as possible any media streams that are consolidated by Big Social. For example, I never, ever, ever look at my Facebook account's main page, or look at my notifications. Instead, I browse things I want to browse in their own little information silos. (That is, specific groups or pages.) RSS feeds are helpful tools for this, which is why RSS is so largely dead.

The problem with Big Social isn't that you end up with filter bubbles, it's that Big Social tries to consolidate things in such a way as to control your information consumption priorities, while pushing "discovery" of things you didn't actually want or need to know... like Twitter randomly showing me stuff from people followed by people I follow, or stuff that people I follow liked or replied to.

I guess I should at least attempt to make a decent neologism here:

contemptbait?
scandalscrolling?

Meh. Maybe someone else will think of a good one.

Perhaps it's worth adding to the post

I thought we were already calling it Sneer Culture.

I would say that Sneer Culture is a subset of "scornporn". Sneer Culture is generally about "X licensing" whereas scornporn is about "Contempt generating content that makes you feel higher on the social hierarchy." 

I feel like this kind of thing has been on the rise since the early 2010s, although it might just be me being in more places on the internet. Sort of the sentiment Eliezer expresses here (from where I took the quote at the end).

Initially, open and continuous contempt for other people and for other communities was a thing I saw mainly happening in the context of fandoms and tight groups. Example: in the anime community, in particular literature communities, etc. places where sometimes sorta-narcissistic people form groups to fight other groups with different tastes, mainly to establish an identity in which they are better than other people for made-up reasons (this is obviously not new... hello WWII?).

Now I see it done everywhere. I feel it is a result of identity politics and more discussions over moral stuff in general, AND of more tight-knit communities, that, as Yudkowsky pointed out way earlier than it got out of control from my POV, they naturally tend to form cults. Now if you enter basically any community and you say the wrong thing you get murdered with negative internet points and scorn. I guess you could use this for some effective anti-conformity training?

The formation of large communities with the only purpose of scorn I feel it is part of the same phenomenon. The sentiment "I am better than you" and "people who disgust me must die (socially unacceptable instances in my group excluded)" might have been born in small communities and then expanded in large ones. There is also the hypothesis that this is due to the internet now populated by everyone, and the themes changed (Scott Alexander wrote about how before this era there was the atheism vs. religion era, which produced discourse that was at least sorta linked with reality and not happening only above it in the social context). 
 


When someone politely presents themselves with a careful argument, does your cultural software tell you that you're supposed to listen and make a careful response, or make fun of the other person and then laugh about how they're upset? What about when your own brain tries to generate a careful argument? Does your cultural milieu give you any examples of people showing how to really care deeply about something (i.e. debate consequences of paths and hew hard to the best one), or is everything you see just people competing to be loud in their identification?

>perhaps a social stigma can develop
Social stigmas get traction via contempt, so that sounds promising.

There's a similar pattern in Rap music, the misanthropic self promotion. The message of basically every lyric is either "I'm super successful" or "I know no bounds in what I will do"; either case has the listener emphasize with the sentiment of being better than others/not caring about others. I stopped listening when I noticed the avarice it was promoting, how I could only fantasize about being a $MM success, which not having a path to improve toward just gives the fantasy of becoming $MM.

"Contempt porn"?  Related to "outrage bait", which describes much of the rest of social media.  Both imply a sort of trick played on the brain, without outright saying there's no place for a little of the base emotion.

Or perhaps go further - I figure out if contempt is ever a useful emotion.  It can save time and help choose strategy for dealing with aliens (including children and <dispreferred political party>).  But in all cases, accurate modeling would be more useful.  And it's certainly not beneficial to most stated goals to seek out things to be contemptuous of.

In any case, I don't think "isolate yourself from the sources" is the best primary approach (though it's perhaps part of the approach, or an effect of a working approach).  Figuring out something like https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/wJutA2czyFg6HbYoW/what-are-trigger-action-plans-taps for the undesirable reaction is probably a better direction.  Notice when you're attracted to this judgement, and interrupt it with a more compassionate and nuanced evaluation.

I'm currently reading Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges.  This theme of contempt figures prominently in that book.

You should add /r/SneerClub as a bonus.

I did like how you described the feeling of contempt as a lack of mental autonomy.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRBsaJPkt2Q

If you’re interested in this topic more and have an hour and a half to burn, there’s worse ways to spend it.

A while back I published an article about a similar idea on my blog, the Thinkateria.