Constant Online Outrage is a Useless Replacement for Empathy

In recent months I’ve been having a mini crisis in terms of my work. As someone who spends lengthy working days online I see a lot of the good and bad in online culture, and having been doing this ‘job’ for a good few years I’ve seen a shift in how the internet sustains itself. The economy of the web is not just in dollars and pounds, but in trends and mindshare, and I’ve seen the latter non-currency evolve in ugly and facile ways.

I’m at a good age to have a ‘history’ with the web. I remember when it was young, rough around the edges, and loading a low-resolution video would take ages before it would inevitably just buffer anyway. Usage restrictions were tight, so every page view had to be carefully considered. It was a rather humorous place, despite this dog-owner rolling his eyes at the fascination most had with cats.

That’s changed and the web has evolved, however, and I’m not convinced it’s for the better. Along with reality TV the web became a source of celebrity, and as the internet economy grew it began to monetise itself. With monetisation there was a gradual loss of free-wheeling spirit as capitalisation took hold, at least in the mainstream outlets and pages thrown at us by web browsers, and a terrible thing happened – we realised that we could effectively be anonymous or, instead, a fake version of ourselves.

Whereas in the pre-broadband and smartphone era we consumed the web as readers, now we own it, and with that has come the abundance of selfies and celebrities literally only famous for being controversial. Someone can be very rich without much discernible talent if they conquer social media, and controlling that part of the web earns coverage on the endless buzz sites. And here’s something else I’ve learnt – negativity is what many want in their web content.

I’ve seen it in the relatively genteel world of Nintendo, where an issue that’s controversial gets far more engagement than an article about something positive, and that’s a sad state of affairs. The common factor with that engagement is outrage – people like to be angry, at least artificially, and they like sharing that with everyone else. I’ve occasionally done it myself but trained myself out of it, but for some it seems to be a profession.

The trouble is that many people, based on trends and much of the nonsense perpetuated all over the web, get outraged at the wrong thing. To quote The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones – “Anger is distorting modern life”. We rage against things we can’t change or are largely unimportant, because it’s what everyone else is doing, we’re jealous of the person / thing in question, or a host of other reasons. Plenty then share that rage online, desperate to show how much they care about a particular topic, often while spectacularly missing the point.

The trouble with outrage is that it rarely brings about much change. In the real non-digital world there are countless examples where anger and rage has helped kickstart social change, but after the protests and riots there’s always a lot of real work and compromise that happens. Yet in this era of trends millions latch onto a topic, argue furiously for a few days, then forget all about it.

They’re rarely conversations that we have online, either, and with our artificial online identities we can act without reason and logic. It’s the easiest thing in the world to be outraged, to find something to blame and scream bloody murder about it, and now that’s become a popular way to pass time. As millions do this it becomes the prevalent way social media works, which then bleeds into conventional media. It’s all entirely democratic, of course, but when people complain about the media, for example, I want to say it’s exactly what we deserve.

Sadly, I can’t help but feel that more and more people are taking the selfishness and narcissism that floods the web and applying it to real life. I look at the current state of politics here in the UK, EU and US and wonder what the end game is, as a cynical public then ironically encourages increasingly cynical politicians. We have a Chancellor in the UK who often targets the weak and seems to write budgets on a napkin before casually ditching a policy (with no funding replacement) if the public turn on it, and we have the bizarre reality of someone like Donald Trump being a potential President of the United States. Discrimination and hate are becoming far too effective in politics – as I said, negativity sells.

Yet negativity is a waste. Empathy, an awareness of others that is fundamental to the best of humanity, comes from positivity. It’s easy and lazy to find something to rage about, but it takes effort to empathise and to understand. When extremists blow themselves up it’s easy to blame the religion which they claim to represent, but it’s more important to stand with those being misrepresented by monsters that want to terrorise the public.

The internet is still a platform for wonderful things – it has knowledge, entertainment and the best nature of people in abundance. Yet we need to seek these elements out and make them the leading forces in the web economy. Next time cynicism is the first instinct in response to something, we should double take and reassess. If we’re angry about a selfish rich man with an empty palace, rather than give that oxygen we should promote and support organisations that help the homeless. If an attention-seeking celebrity says something vile to get headlines, don’t give them the oxygen of a retweet.

The internet can still be an incredible force of good, but we need to care about how we use it.