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?
What strikes me is how truthfully this shines a light on how reactionary so much political discourse is, which seems to be embedded in more prideful notions of self-righteousness (or whatever).
Interestingly (but not related), this is not the first time I’ve seen somebody put ‘Mark Driscoll’ in their blog subject line because they knew it would get hits! (however ironically)
I agree with these observations. Defining the other in sharper contrast and then ranting against them seem to be the single greatest driver of internet conversations. If Rene Girard is right, then this is THE glue that holds society together. But the unity it creates is a false unity. When we scapegoat and cast out our neighbor, we are doing Satan’s work and perpetuating our discord.
It seems to me that arguments online show all of this at work in more stark relief since the raw ideas and differences are isolated and dealt with without a lot off human context. In the face-to-face world, other things like personality, friendships (even mild acquaintances), working together (even if it’s just in an office), etc. serve to the muddy the waters (in a good way) and make it more difficult to draw such thick lines between us and them.
“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.” This I think is the key. I would love to teach people how to do this with my own thinking and writing, as I learn to do it myself. The low road is to define yourself as “not them”. The high road is to define yourself in humility, in Christ, without using them as your point of reference. A real challenge! The other way is so darn easy.
Leads to some blogging dilemmas – thought-through and nuanced writing is more mature, God-honouring – but less-read…
Do you play the rhetoric/controversy cards to get more readers and followers and thus disseminate your ideas more widely, albeit in simplified/caricatured form? or do you just write for those (few) who will have the perseverance to engage intelligently with your thoughts?
Is it a question of quality versus quantity??
Thanks for the comment, Tanya. Not an easy question to answer!
I play the rhetoric and controversy card from time to time despite myself. I wish that I wouldn’t, but sometimes it is hard to resist. In general, however, it is only by controlling our responses that we can form healthy online conversations and lead to positive change, rather than exacerbated polarizations.
It isn’t hard to strengthen the existing flows, tendencies, and reactions. Changing minds and imagining something new is far harder, and I don’t see how anything but self-controlled speech is capable of achieving it. I try to engage with a wide range of people, with whom I agree and disagree, to thicken my skin against offence, learn how to take better control of my responses, improve my listening skills, and gain the space in which to hear new words from people who disagree with me, and speak new words to them, without either of us being threatened by the existence of disagreement between us.
Edwin Friedman suggests that the ability to self-differentiate is characteristic of leadership. If this is the case, then by becoming self-differentiated and controlled, we can become leaders, and as we engage with such people we are engaging with leaders. Change or form the mind of a leader, and you can affect entire communities. Jesus’ ministry focused primarily on a small group of disciples, and was no less world-changing on that account!
I think it all comes down to an understanding of what a blog is….
A blog remember is literally a ‘Web Log’ ie they were conceived as digital logs of what was going on in peoples lives – here and now. That is why Twitter is popular because it’s about right here right now. Blogs with lots of thought cease to be blogs and instead become some sort of digital journal full of articles rather than ‘posts’ If you like the sort of thing that well thought through articles might say are also available in more traditional forms of media, both print and digitally but a true blog, in it’s very nature an ‘of this moment in time’ issue is something that can’t work in traditional media.
A friend write a well read and respected wine blog (one of the top globally – and no it isn’t mine!) but the one issue I have is that he has a selection of backup posts ready to go for when he doesn’t have anything interesting to say about today. Rather he’ll write something about a trip he went on 6 months ago (or more probably write about it 6 months ago) that doesn’t make it a bad thing, or a bad bit of writing but a true ‘blog’ I isn’t.
What makes a good blog post is when it is immediately relevant. Talking about your struggles as you go through them is more readable, personal and engaging than writing about them in the past tense.
Insightful and well-written. Thanks for this interesting post.
Penso que as pessoas não podem fazer história por detrás de um computador, Não podem fazer história sendo apenas textos sem “história”. As redes sociais num primeiro instante podem parecer democraticas, rápidas e muito necessárias, mas ao meu ver, pode criar uma cultura neorotica e controladora.
I think this is just one of the issues you’ll just have to come to your own terms with. One part of rhetoric is appealing to your audience. Audiences reading a blog, me included, are much more likely to read short or passionate material than long and/or dry entries. There will NEVER be a direct correlation between how much time and effort you put into a piece of writing and how wide of an audience it appeals to.
If you were writing for, say, a print journal, I think you might find the situation different in many ways, though perhaps not so different as well.
Some good points, Paul. Thanks.
Currently most the way through A Failure of Nerve. Great Post, I will have to steal it. Thanks.
“Thoughts on the Flawed Criteria for Engagement with and Amplification of Ideas Online” is a better title for thinking people. Only got here because of your tweet.
Better still would be to continue the title, as in “…Online: Being a Weblog exposition on and application of theories regarding emotional stimuli and autonomic nervous activation by titles and depth of content in blog posts and other Web 2.0 social media”
The existing title is about deep enough to excite the population that is particularly loyal to MD, to read and come to his defense. I’m not in that camp. I’d be more likely to WANT to read a blog, or better a scholarly article or book otherwise titled. Bring on the Puritans and their writing!
The title was primarily chosen to attract those of us who most need to question our approach to such matters (and, if the hits are anything to go by, it worked). From your self-description, you sound like one of the fortunate people who is less challenged in this area. 🙂
Totally understood the purpose, which makes your chosen title most appropriate for this post. Nuance of my comments is in the prepositional phrase “for thinking people.”
The people who would gravitate to a post title like this one are the same ones who would get turned on by, and eagerly buy something titled Porn Again Christian
Good, thoughtful post, by the way.
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Lay off Mark Driscoll already, br.
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