Essays on Technology and Culture

Rewarding Knee-Jerk Reactions

The longer I use social media, the clearer it becomes to me that the current crop of social media services we use are designed to reward immediacy above all else. Immediacy gets results, and Twitter’s focus on it is a large part of why it’s now entrenched in breaking news. That same focus on immediacy is also responsible for what drives so many people nuts about social media. By rewarding quick posts, particularly ones that invoke strong emotion, social media all-too-easily embroils us in the Outrage Cycle. Often multiple times a day.

Each Outrage Cycle begins like the same way. Someone, deliberately or not, posts something outrageous. It gets discovered by someone, anyone really, who responds with outrage. This raises visibility of the outrageous thing, driving more attention, and more outrage. Often, a troll or twenty will stoke the flames by defending the outrageous thing, and that will only increase the volume of outrage. Then comes the meta-outrage, as people make outraged comments about all the outrage on Twitter today, and how we should never have left, etc. The more violent Outrage Cycles can even spiral into meta-meta-outrage over the outage against the outrage. For a perfect example of this pattern in action, just refresh yourself with the story of Justine Sacco. [1]

Twitter and similar services, reward this kind of behavior implicitly, though probably not intentionally. Social media’s speed allows precious little time for reflection. There’s a real, and somewhat valid fear, that by waiting to get more information, or even to figure out how you really feel, you’re going to miss out on something. What that “something” is could be anything from mere Favorites, Likes, and Retweets, to an @-reply from a famous person, or just a chance to have your say in a big conversation on equal footing with the rest of the world. We all want our chance at the spotlight, and Outrage Cycles are an effective tool to get us there.

Rewarding knee-jerk reactions, and placing them on the level of valid discourse does not benefit anyone except the platform. Which is probably why nothing has been done about it. More activity means more eyeballs to monetize, ad views to sell, and more impressive charts for investor storytime. I can’t say that the platforms were designed with this behavior in mind, but it’s to the benefit of their owners, advertisers, and investors that the implicit reward remain in place. So, it comes down to us, the people who feed the angry, gaping maw of the beast with our immediate reactions to whatever is handy to react to.

Changing this has to begin with us. It begins with “reading first and hitting the send key later”, but it has to go beyond that. We need to rethink the relationship we have with social media, and the people who use it—those we know, and those we do not. Most social media isn’t a prescriptivist technology, at least not completely. We have the ability to change how we use it, what for, and on what terms. We can uninstall the apps, and delete our accounts if it comes to it. Once we learn to engage on different terms with social media, we’ll be in a place that makes it that much easier to avoid the rewards of knee-jerk actions.