An optimistic explanation of the outrage epidemic

by chaosmage4 min read15th Jul 20185 comments

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Personal Blog

Lots of people agree the internet is full of outrage content these days. I think this is so obvious I'm not even going to post sources that say it.

Why this is the case isn't completely clear. I count at least four common theories which of course aren't exclusive:

  • media companies are shrinking, so they're desperate for clicks and have stumbled on outrage as a good click getter
  • it is Twitter's fault, the structure there incentivizes outrage
  • increasing political polarization has infected the internet
  • coddled youth, used to carefully curated experiences, can't handle disagreement like they should

All of these might be contributing factors, but I want to point out another that I haven't seen mentioned.

The strength of an outrage response depends not just on how outrageous an act is, but also on other factors, how recent it is for example, and how close we are to the victim that something outrageous is done to. And in particular, it also depends on how close the outrageous person (the perpetrator) is.

Imagined examples, where we hold the act, victim and recentness constant and vary only the closeness of the perpetrator:

  • If somebody else's child steals from a shop I don't like it. But if my own child steals the same thing from the same shop I get really angry.
  • When the president of Russia tells obvious lies to the media that's bad but not big news. When the president of the US does the same thing I really worry and it is a huge deal. (I'm not a US citizen but an ally.)
  • If I think of people in South Sudan doing female genital mutilation on their daughters, I'm a bit outraged. But if someone in my city did that, I'd be intensely and obviously furious - and more so if it was in my street - and even more so if it was in my apartment building, even if I never met the daughter.
  • If my wife were to make a stupid mistake that costs us a hundred bucks, I'd be angry. But if I (the closest possible person) made the exact same mistake, I'd be much more angry at myself.

I can't think of any counterexamples.

For each of these examples I could find more situation-specific explanations why I'd be more outraged by one than by the other. But it is more parsimonious to think the explanation is always in the degree of closeness to the perpetrator.

It seems to me like there's a one-dimensional rank order (or possibly even a metric) of closeness that co-determines the intensity of my outrage. It goes something like me -> my close family -> my close friends -> my extended family -> my acquaintances -> my fellow citizens of my city, my region and my nation -> fellow members of my culture -> fellow humans -> fellow mammals.

So an increase in felt outrage is exactly what you'd expect to happen if people were treating each other as closer than before.

Here's why this is an optimistic explanation. I think this rank order of closeness is closely correlated with, or even identical with, ingroupishness. This turns the binary ingroup/outgroup distinction, which is somewhat well-studied, into a more speculative rank order (or perhaps even metric) of ingroupiness. I think that's a pretty solid assumption and I vaguely remember ideas like this being discussed in the rationality cluster before.

It makes theoretical sense to expect outrage to be an emotion that's more likely to happen in an ingroup. If the perpetrator is outgroup, you can react with enmity: "if I ever meet you I'm going to kill you". If the perpetrator is ingroup, you can't do that (as readily) because that'd turn you into an unreliable ingroup member. However, you still need to signal that you don't agree with the act, so you don't share the blame as a member of the same group. Outrage does that. It provokes moral conflict that may help build moral consensus that you'd never bother to build with someone who's outgroup anyway.

So what I'm saying is the outrage epidemic means we're treating each other more ingroupishly rather than outgroupishly. Female genital mutilation is now done by people to people, when 200 years ago people in my country would have seen that as the barbarous customs of mere savages. The president of the United States feels like an acquaintance. A random stranger who did something terrible enough to make the news feels kind of like someone living in my town - I never talked to that person but I know their face and I can hear people talk about them. And the same is true of their victims. Even wild animals have now got a few Effective Altruists wondering about how to reduce their suffering. It is like ingroupishness is expanding in general.

And that's great news because as we all know, we treat ingroup(ish) people far better than outgroup(ish) people. We don't go to war with the ingroup, so the way to world peace is probably something like the way to treating all humans more ingroupishly. As we integrate with each other ever more closely and stumble towards some type of global hive mind, there's a lot of moral conflict to be had so we can build sufficient moral consensus in order to be comfortable in increasingly tight ingroups together. So that's going to involve even more outrage - but I think that's a price worth paying.

tl/dr: Outrage is felt more strongly towards ingroup than towards outgroup, so increasing outrage indicates we see other people as increasingly ingroup-ish.

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My guess: It is easier than ever before to convert outrage into money.

Imagine that you live in the era before online advertising, and that you are good at e.g. inciting hate against some group X. Most likely it would be just your free-time hobby, because how exactly could you turn it into a source of income?

I mean, there are a few options: you could publish books against X that your followers would buy, or you could become a politician and get votes from your followers. But each of this options is complicated. To become a successful politician requires many other skills; and there are only a few political positions compared with the number of haters. Writing a book is a lot of work, and many haters simply don't read books.

Today, all you need is to start a free blog, insert Google Adsense in the page template, and write an incendiary article whenever you feel like it; then share it on social networks. That's the whole infrastructure you need to convert outrage into money; it can be done in an afternoon. You are in the same position as the guy next doors who tries to make a side income programming Android games, except that you don't need the coding skills.

Unlike selling books, with online articles you don't need anyone to make a conscious decision to pay for your output. By merely looking at it they have already paid. You even get the money for people who share your articles as examples of "look what a horrible thing this evil person wrote". Is that not a powerful incentive to be as horrible as possible? #killAllOutgroup #yesAllOutgroup

Of course not everyone can convert posting hate into a full-time job. The competition is high these days. But the barriers to entry are low. It is much easier to make your first dollar of profit; and then it's just a question of scaling it up by posting regularly, increasing your online visibility, mutual exchange of links with similarly-minded people, etc. (And then, after you gave written your first fifty articles, you can convert them into a book and sell that, too.)

To get an idea of how profitable this business is... well, the advertising companies usually prevent you from disclosing specific numbers, but I guess, fuck them. So...

About ten years ago I started by own blog, with some ads, and then I wrote a few articles during the next five years. Now I am a quite lazy person, so I only wrote maybe 20 articles during those five years. Most of them in two versions: my native language, and English. The usual topic was either "what happened to me recently" or "a short tutorial on programming something trivial". That is, frankly: completely boring. In return, after those five years I made about 100 dollars on ad views. What does this mean?

First, even a very lazy person (one short article in three months) can make non-zero money. Now assume a less lazy person, who would write e.g. two articles per week. Linearly approximated, that would make 40 dollars per month. Okay, not quite enough for early retirement, but already a motivating income for, let's say, a high school student in a poorer country.

However, not all articles are equal in their income potential. For example, a large fraction of my income (I don't remember how much) came from one article, where I wrote about a popular TV show I had watched recently. Nothing special, just a short description and a recommendation to watch it, too. One such article pays more than ten short programming tutorials. Now the student who would write two articles of this type per week would suddenly make 400 dollars per month. (At least, ten years ago. I imagine today the competition is higher, and rewards per article smaller. Also, many people use ad blockers.)

And I suspect this is still far from a possible income from a viral culture-war article. I have no data about this, but I suspect in such case you could make 400 dollars or more per one article. Possibly even more if you could make someone from a major newspaper link it. Now this has a potential to become a decently paid full-time job, with the level of autonomy most people can only dream about. Perhaps not attractive enough for a coder living in Bay Area, who still has some better options, but most people are not in this situation.

Possibly related:

The other day it was raining heavily. I chose to take an umbrella rather than shaking my fist at the sky. Shaking your fist at the sky seems pretty stupid, but people do analogous things all the time.

Complaining to your ingroup about your outgroup isn't going to change your outgroup. Complaining that you are misunderstood isn't going to make you understood. Changing the way you communicate might. You are not in control of how people interpret you, but you are in control of what you say.

It might be unfortunate that people have a hair-trigger tendency to interpret others as saying something dastardly, but, like the rain, it is too large and diffuse a phenomenon to actually do anything about.

Thinking in terms of virtue (or blame), and thinking in terms of fixing things , are very different. It's very tempting to sit down with your ingroup, and agree with them about the deplorability of the outgroup, who aren't even party to the conversation...as if that was achieving something. You can tell it is an attractor, because rational people are susceptible to it, too

I'd just like to add another possible contributing factor for increased outrage (which seems to me very plausible):

Social media services probably use machine learning to maximize the "time-spent" metric (i.e. how much time users spend browsing), and they're probably gradually getting better at this as they're collecting more data. It's plausible that for a lot of users, the more they're outraged the more time they tend to spend browsing. Therefore, feed-ranking algorithms make those users outraged, with increasing efficiency.

I have a counter-example. I have a few people in my Facebook feed who regularly post outraged articles about Palestinians launching terror attacks or doing bad things. I also have a few people who regularly post outraged articles about Israelis killing Palestinian protestors. This theory would predict that the people posting the former would tend to be Palestinian or Muslim, while the latter who tend to be Israeli or Jewish. But I’m fact it’s the opposite: all the articles about Palestinians doing bad things are posted by Jews, and all the articles about Israelis are posted by Muslims.

No, the degree of outrage also depends on closeness to the victim. In this case Jews will feel closer to Israelis (the victims of Palestinians), and Muslims will feel closer to Palestinians (the victims of Israelis) so that's what they're outraged about. Closeness to the perpetrator is a factor I think, but I don't expect it is stronger than closeness to the victim.