This morning I glanced at the number of visitors that each of my blog posts has received over the last few months. In something that continues to be a cause of both frustration and curiosity to me, I once again observe that the posts into which I have put the most thought and work generally receive the least attention, while hastily written or rough comments or rants can prove immensely popular. While, in the case of my blog, this effect can in part be explained by the forbidding character of long and dense posts (yes, I know…), I am not convinced that this is a sufficient explanation for the effect.
My theory – to which research lends some support – is that the degree to which people will respond to, share, and amplify a post is primarily dependent, not upon the depth of insight or even the novelty of a thought, but the nature and intensity of the emotions provoked by it. Posts that evoke complex, subtle, or little emotion, or which produce more sluggish emotions such as sadness, guilt, regret, or contentment, receive little attention or amplification, while posts that are likely to spark outrage, shock, anger, or feelings of moral or intellectual superiority over some other party receive much.
If the evoking of emotion is the primary criteria of sharing, we should not be surprised that the most amplified material online tends to be dominated by simple and intense emotions, often polarizing in character. There is a lot of good material being written online. However, the criteria for our engagement and sharing are skewed in such a manner that material that arouses simple and intense emotions will receive the most attention. This is why a significant proportion of your Twitter feed will always be filled with people being outraged at something some other party has just said or done, the actions or words of this party being presented in a highly caricatured manner that enables the most emotional and unreflective of outraged responses.
When it comes to the emotions that provoke response and amplification of online material, I suspect that it is outrage that is the most important. We like our reading material to make us feel right. However, the feeling of being right is never so delicious as when someone else is profoundly and completely wrong. The other person needs to be shockingly wrong, so shockingly wrong that we are shocked by how right we are in contrast to them. This is why the title of this post will produce so many more hits than a post entitled ‘Thoughts on the Flawed Criteria for Engagement with and Amplification of Ideas Online’.
Lest we forget, given the current social network dominated form of the Internet, online sharing and engagement is driven primarily by social considerations. The sharing of ideas is less about the ideas themselves as it is about the manner in which those ideas serve to connect you with people and communities, or enable you to define yourself over against other persons and communities. Even when people may find themselves persuaded by ideas that don’t fit tidily into particular online communities and identities, these won’t be the ideas that they are most likely to share with their friends. Communities are more generally bound together by the simplest tribal emotions, rather than by engagement with complex ideas. It is very hard to rally people around ideas that decrease their sense of certitude or moral superiority.
The other foolish party is not a dispensable element of this picture, but is a necessary foil to our rightness and moral superiority: the more wrong they are, the more right we feel. In the process we can be incredibly gullible about other people’s levels of gullibility. While ostensibly engaging with another person’s ideas, we are constantly tempted to engage rather with the caricature of that person that serves to sustain our own community’s self-identity. The invincible stupidity of our opponents is often the stupid and blindly swallowed belief that underwrites our own sense of self and belonging. The outrage at the supposedly guilty opponent is perhaps the most potent emotion of all: there is nothing more uniting than collectively stoning the ideological scapegoat.
An emotional response is easy. It can give us the immediate and intoxicating frisson of moral and intellectual certitude and a clear sense of belonging and identity. A considered and articulated response is far more difficult, requiring the self-denial of forgoing the emotional satisfaction offered by a sense of moral and ideological superiority and certitude.
The emotional responses of offense or outrage are characteristic of the emotionally reactive society that I discussed in my Edwin Friedman posts. Friedman observes that reactive societies are characterized by blame displacement and statements that focus on parties other than the speaker. The form of emotion-driven and social-driven sharing and ideological amplification that we encounter online caters perfectly for such reactivity. In the realm of theology this will involve a constant reactive posture to other communities and persons, as we become fixated on our ideological opponents. The difficult alternative to this is to speak with theological self-definition, the sort of theological self-definition that functions as an immune system, enabling you to engage and disagree with people who differ with you without feeling threatened by them or needing to caricature or react to them. It is our own emotional immaturity that leads us to fixate on the outrageous statements of other communities and persons, rather than forging our own clear and defined theological identity.
Writing and reacting to rants is easy. Responding in a self-transforming and self-defining manner to another person’s insights, or writing self-defining thoughts of your own, is far more demanding. It usually involves some loss of certitude, moral and ideological. It will also tend to alienate us from ideological communities, who will almost always feel threatened by self-defined parties in their midst, parties who engage, interact with, and appreciate them, while maintaining distinctive views of their own. Even if you have clear differences with the scapegoats, for instance, pointing out that they are innocent of many charges and are being unjustly scapegoated as an expression of a community’s own emotional immaturity is likely to get you stoned yourself.
For this reason, I believe that we should all be much more cautious and conscious when engaging with or spreading ideas online. Are we reacting to persons, communities, parties, or ideologies in an emotionally immature fashion, or are we being self-defined, and responding to others in a manner that exhibits self-control over our feelings and reactions, and desire to understand and represent them fairly?