A Culture of Mean: How to Gain Followers and Reshares
The internet is for porn, cats, and trolls. All other things—social gatherings, causes, activism, information, chatting—come second to these three main foundation posts of the web (although GIFs are arguably climbing up there). With that in mind, is it any wonder that the most common form of social activism falls under the third category—that of trolling?
And why wouldn’t it? Look around online, at the links shared and reshared, the clickbait posted by places like Jezebel and Buzzfeed, and it becomes rapidly clear that the only way to get attention—for good or ill—is to be a raging ass or irresistibly cute. (Or show your genitals. Let’s be fair.)
Many of us have no interest in showing our genitals to the world at large. Many of us—cute we might be—can’t hold a candle to the irresistible fluff of a kitten or, dare I say it, Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch. We have things to say that can’t be disguised in happy fluffballs of adorableness, and reasonable discourse nets very little by way of resharing.
Many of us, you might have noticed, default to rage.
Mob Rule on the Internet
"…Distracted from distraction by distraction…" — T S Eliot
Several years ago, I read an article about the toll the internet is taking on our collective brain functions. It’s pretty interesting stuff, and it stuck with me for one major reason: I recognized the signs in myself.
I have caught myself more than I’m comfortable with thinking in 140 characters. I find myself reaching for the devices when I have some quiet, or when I’m alone, or even when I’m not and figure it’s just a few seconds. I am no longer capable of being alone.
But even worse than that—who wants to be alone, anyway?—is the social grooming that comes with the constant attendance of the internet. We have been groomed to understand that there are only two ways to net attention to our cause:
- be mean about it;
- suffer someone else being mean towards us.
Few of us who crave the attentions of our audiences—and let’s not be shy, we know who we are, and we are legion—have the patience to wait for someone to come be mean to us. So we hit it first. For some, that mean is wrapped in folds of scathing humor, the kind of stuff that gets laughs at something else’s expense even while it drills the point home. For others, being mean is an art itself, designed and laid out with as much thought and care as a performance piece. Being mean to be mean garners an audience of those who thrive on watching someone or something get shredded by the ill humors of the shredder.
"Filled with fancies and empty of meaning…" — T S Eliot
(All of you picturing a guy in a spiky bucket helmet, you are welcome here.)
Now, semantics aside, this is not always a default mechanism for everyone. Many are the positive posts, the encouragement, and when that doesn’t do, the silence. I know many authors who remain quiet rather than join in the rage parade, because a thousand voices screaming hate and vitriol is no more effective—and in fact, I think is even more detrimental to the cause.
Yet that parade is the one that looks like it’s getting something done. It looks like it’s going places, like doors are opening for it. All those wide eyes staring and watching and listening to the spew look like they get it.
It takes someone standing back, someone neither in the crowd or on the floats, to see that what that crowd is getting is entertained.
We have become a side show; not even given the courtesy of standing in the main ring. Our culture of mean—a natural progression of the theory that clicks and reshares = popularity support—insists that we continue to deliberately turn to anger. Anger sells.
Not as much as sex, but more than logic. (Zachary Quinto notwithstanding.)
Default Mode: Rage Machine
"Tumid apathy with no concentration…" — T S Eliot
Yes. I know, I know, this is me. I have had my share of rage-induced blog posts, and I’m sure that I’ll have more.
Yes, I know, I know that there are cases when people’s voices lifted in anger, in outrage, have netted positive change. It doesn’t take much to recall the fiasco about the SFWA and a few folks’ take on “lady authors”. But that’s my point, isn’t it?
Rage is a weapon. It’s a tool, just like any other emotion placed out there for mass consumption. This isn’t about silencing one’s rage, it’s not about finding zen with the world (although I’d like to). This is not a thing that says you need to be quiet.
What this says is that maybe it’s time we all individually look at what our defaults have been set to, and decide if that’s where we really want to stay.
We have become a society—a community—of rage over reason, of reason buried in vitriol, of vitriol over intimacy. We default to the habitual resharing of such things as a matter of rote—because it’s funny, or entertaining, or sparks in us that adrenaline rush that makes us want to join the party. We craft wittily scathing tweets given the slightest provocation, turn on others at the drop of a currently socially acceptable hat; we emotionally beat up our friends because internet justice has become more important than the friends we’re unwittingly hurting with our broad strokes and absolutes.
"Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind That blows before and after time…" — T S Eliot
In every case, there is a rational explanation—an excuse that is supposed to make it all better—that we are prepared to link to; usually in articles posted by others. Most often in the same places known for the clickbait that started it.
They all boil down to a single refrain: “You don’t matter.”
"Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs Time before and time after…" — T S Eliot
Because it’s not about you—even if it is. Because if you dare say that your friend has hurt you with a broad stroke, you become the selfish one. You become the problem. You become the enemy.
If you are not made of iron, then get off the internet—because the cause that seems most prevalent is if you can’t handle my abuse, get out.
"You don’t matter."
Forget yourself as an individual. Forget your allies and friends as individuals. Forget that you, or they, cannot go into your “safe” spots, your friend spots, without being told what a terrible person you are.Tell yourself that you, or they, deserve that—for whatever reason. Forget that you are flesh and blood and feeling and heart. Forget that people are flesh and blood and feeling and heart.
When did our default become alienating our allies and friends in favor of adrenaline rushes and clickbait?
"…Not here the darkness, in this twittering world." — T S Eliot
When did we forget that causes by the very nature of being a cause is in desperate need of support from individuals?
Is that the exchange that makes us happy?
Social communities are more than words. Social communities are made of actions that bind, friendships, shared stories and a future the community wants to see unfold. Unfortunately, all it takes is words to shred a community. Words, and a lack of awareness.
Our default—rage over intimacy—slices off individuals like fungus. We are cannibalizing our own causes. And they are too important to lose to sideshow bids for popularity.
Breathe. Think. Post.
There is popularity in anger—the kind of likes and up-votes and reshares and invites to prom that come from being a mean girl (or guy, if that’s your jam). There is a buzz that comes from the words of encouragement and the shouts of agreement.
There is a high that stems from crushing the deserving underfoot—and the same high from crushing the undeserving.
The internet provides us with a unique opportunity unheard of in previous generations. We have access. We have audiences. We have, dare I say it, fans, and as any celebrity—minor though the internet allows us to be, for however long—learns very quickly, fans love drama.
We have entered into a culture of mean: When it costs us less to be angry and cutting than it does to think or talk things through; when it makes us feel better to sit on a pedestal and spit venom than it does to sit down in a group and hold a discourse.
We are losing the audiences we need to hear us and gaining those who thrive on negativity and bullying.
There are times when mean must be the voice. When rage is the only thing that will puncture holes in a system so broken that reason no longer suffices. There are legitimate purposes for the tool that rage is.
It should not be the default.
Every time a tool is used, it blunts—to extend this already overly extended metaphor. Imagine it like non-stop screamo. When all the world sees from you is anger, they become deaf to it. It loses its edge. Like comedy, where a comedian constantly reaches for the next plateau, every rage becomes so much noise, and people are forced to push harder, get meaner, sharpen their tools on every cause, for every chance, because losing views, losing audience, losing reshares is a slow and lonely death on the internet that does not care.
(If you’re one of those who like screamo and listen to it all the time, then you are akin to those who can look at and read and deal with the rage constantly lashing out at them. Congrats.)
Look. I’m not asking you to shut up. I’m just suggesting that next time you feel the urge to rage about something online, take a moment. Think about it. Ask any questions you need of the subject matter to clarify your understanding. Breathe. And after you’ve done that, if you still think that a reasonable discourse—a blog post without the vitriol, say—isn’t right and outrage is the way to go, then by all means.
Let that be the diamond in your collection, the thing you unveil when all else fails. In a mercenary sort of sense, if that’s your thing, let your outrage be the type that when it does unfold, you stun your audience, shock them into awe and reshares.
We’ve got to do something, delicious ones. Because alienating the people who already support us isn’t the way.
Less Rage =/= Silence
Let me just be clear: I’m not advocating a return to Barbie, or to silence, or to “privileged speakers only”, or any of that nonsense that seems to crop up when someone suggests easing back on the throttle a little. What I’m saying is that relying on one thing too often cheapens the tool. We aren’t out here to hear ourselves talk. We aren’t posting blogs and making waves because it’s for our health.
We do it because we want to be heard. Because we have something to say, and it’s important. because we ant to be treated as equals—all of us—and we all have our individual things to say.
And like all matters involving other people, there are ways to be more and less effective in a crowd.
Reasonable discourse, even reason as a thought process beyond 140 characters, needs to make a comeback. At least a little. Otherwise all we’re doing up here on the net is yelling at each other.
Who wants to be part of that?