Two Theories of How To Break the Web's 'Rage Machine'

Does the Internet's ever-flowing stream and cesspool of comments make it an angry place?
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Rage. (Thoth God of Knowledge/flickr)

"Sometimes it feels like the Internet is just an outrage machine." This is the dark side of online advocacy, observed Atlantic senior editor Alexis Madrigal during a conversation with Jen Dulski of Change.org and Liba Rubenstein of tumblr at the Silicon Valley Summit on Monday. It's true that online petitions occasionally prompt social change in real life, but it's also true that, some days, social media seems like a repetitive cycle of anger. Twitter wars and irate comments sections and rant-y blog posts get tiresome after a while.

Rubenstein agreed that this worry is understandable, but she argued that good product design can alleviate some of this ragey-ness. She cited two aspects of tumblr's design that keep it from contributing to the Internet's "engine for outrage."

First, the company doesn't allow a commenting free-for-all. "We don’t have traditional online commenting," Rubenstein said. "Commenting was a cesspool of online exchanges—[it’s] the ability to dump on someone else’s content and walk away from it. If you’re going to participate in a conversation [on tumblr], that comment is going to follow you and broadcast to all of your followers. Not to say that there’s not vitriol on tumblr, but that’s product design that’s trying to encourage a more positive and responsible type of online exchange."

It's worth noting that Rubenstein pointed to anonymity as one of the main sources of Internet indignation. Some of the most audacious online acts have been perpetrated by faceless users, including the loose group of activist hackers who call themselves, literally, Anonymous. And in his book The Circle, Dave Eggers builds his critique of social media on the idea that banishing anonymity would automatically lead to greater civility online, although he doesn't quite vet this idea for accuracy.

As appealing as this idea might be—if people have to stand by their comments, they will be only kind and cheerful—it seems out of keeping with the constant anger cycles that pop up on platforms like Twitter. People are perfectly happy to rant at and argue with fellow tweeters, regardless of whether the world will know it's them—just follow Joyce Carol Oates or Alec Baldwin to see high-profile examples.

Speedy consumption of infinite information facilitates short cycles of indignation.

Rubenstein's second explanation was far more thought-provoking. "By its nature, tumblr is less of an inherently immediate platform than some of the other social networks, and it’s a much better platform for archiving content. The lifecycle of a post on tumblr is very long: We actually see a whole lot of activity on popular posts a month or sometimes a year after posting. It’s not a thing that if you don’t come across it in your feed when it’s posted, it’s gone forever."

This is an intriguing idea: that the speed with which we consume infinite information leads to short cycles of collective indignation. With a never-ending flow of things to react to, being mad momentarily requires little real commitment or action. And in the echo chamber of social media, collective outrage can feel like community building.

Of course, tumblr isn't immune to indignation, so platform design can't be the only explanation for Internet outrage. But Madrigal has suggested that the structure of Internet culture may be about to change. "I think people will want structure and endings again, eventually," he wrote in a recent piece for TheAtlantic.com. "Edges and balance are valuable." If this is so, maybe Internet users can look forward to a respite from digital anger in the years ahead. 

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Emma Green is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the National Channel, manages TheAtlantic.com’s homepage, and writes about religion and culture.

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