Bill Keller

I Did Not Sign On For the #Outrage

Twitter has become a combat zone that fills me with dread. When did the Internet turn into such a minefield?

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When I began writing this essay, I was thinking this might be about public apologies, for there had been many. “Mistakes were made,” as recent scandal star Chris Christie said, trotting out that fantastically passive blame-spreading non-apology.

I was looking for a few to focus on, in search of choices and a theme, but the controversies that generated the apologies were a moving target, and then soon no one cared. There seemed to be no point to writing about, say, a few of the apologies, or any one of them: The point wasn’t there with any single story, but somewhere else, maybe behind all of them.

My notes are already quaint: Dylan Farrow, the XOJane column, White Feminism, the billionaire who compared the One Percent to the Jews in Germany during World War II, “The Magical Putter and Dr. V” story at Grantland, the Kellers, SNL before their first black woman hire in seven years, Kanye West. The publicist who went to Africa and lost her job by the time she landed, over a racist tweet.

That last one already feels like it happened a year ago. But that was just before Christmas.

I thought, for a moment, that my topic was “feed fatigue”—I was so sick of everything. I noticed that sometime around last fall I kept stopping myself from tweeting, “What are we mad about today?” because it seemed just too pathetic, and also, that someone would get unreasonably angry at me for it. And while I’m not really one to shy away from a fight for something I believe in, I didn’t want to fight meaninglessly. It seemed increasingly to be what was happening. I was tired of it now almost from the moment I signed on. I didn’t want to unfollow people because of some Twitter fight that might last, at most, a day.

But it started to feel like there was always a fight going on, no matter what it was about, and some of them seemed intractable—battles that kept coming back in different forms, usually the same person fighting the same kinds of people, over and over until, well, one blocked the other. It feels like the entire eliminationist structure of our political process, in which a cold war right-wing coup happening in our government has eliminated all common ground, has become a dynamic mirrored in every other kind of disagreement. You can’t just say, “Well, this is how I think of it, that is how you think of it.” Fewer and fewer people try to seek common ground now. Instead, they and their crew fill your @replies, trying to dominate, no matter the subject, you name it. Doesn’t matter. The bell rings and everyone comes off the bleachers. Every day, every topic, is treated like Bush vs. Gore.

And that was when I understood: I have an outrage hangover.

I am writing this partly because I’ve been reading columns on Twitter outrage lately, and I haven’t been convinced by them, even as I also know I’m affected by it. On Twitter, as has often been observed, new conflicts take center stage at a fairly regular pace, and increasingly, each features a frequent theme: A single tweet gone wrong becomes the trigger for a massive outpouring of contempt. At its best, a hashtag is created, and the issue trends, and if it has legs, response columns are written, open letters, satires, a Funny or Die video for the very best ones, or an Onion item, until said outrage celebrity usually either apologizes publicly, say, in their feed, or they delete the offending tweet. If not, they are the subject of still more hashtags, open letters, and op-eds. Or they delete their entire account.

As participants try to make their issue trend, the result for most users can be like getting spam from seemingly everyone, not just one agitated user. Every day becomes like the days of a political campaign, with ruthless bids for your sympathy on a variety of issues. Battles are fought among supporters of each side, the fights fall apart, usually rather quickly. Blocking and block-bragging commences and the fight moves on. And as each new scandal appears, an industry has been created for the spectating that turns every day into dressage for the next scandal furor du jour.

Who knows what we thought we’d get when we let the Internet into our lives, but whatever it was, what we have now is paper tigers burning in the hot wind of the 4G network—and we are racing after them to watch them burn. For writers, it has meant what we should just call the development of the Op-Ed Economy. Op-ed columns are popular with editors everywhere, as the controversies drive traffic, the writer doesn’t have to be sent anywhere or do much if any reporting, and little-to-no fact-checks are actually required on opinions. While they don’t pay much, they do pay regular, so the writer can make something like a living and build a reputation, as what we used to call the 24-hour news cycle becomes more of a Moebius strip, really, all of us inside a day that never seems to end, our feeds awash in one another’s 800-word columns and think pieces (think “more than 800 words”), most of them usually written overnight, all of them stickered with kicky SEO-driven headlines and occasional corrections if readers point mistakes out in the comments, or on Twitter, and it checks out, and the editors care.

All the while aware that if we get it wrong, at some point Twitter may turn our way, set to destroy. No one is off-limits.

And as we sit down to write, it also means that, so very often, the moments trotted out for consideration are exactly as small as they might seem, and you feel a kind of weariness and self-loathing that the subject in question is even under consideration—even or perhaps especially if you do normally care about such things. Whatever they may be. And you ask yourself: How did I get here?

Or at least, I do. And maybe you feel this way too.

Oh, Internet, place of the ultimate writerly paradox, where things you write quickly for little or no money last forever. Of course you’d become a mistake-ridden landscape of potentially career-ending fiascos, fakes and frauds in almost no time at all. But increasingly, every mistake each of us makes online is its own kind of possible revenge porn now. The Op-Ed Economy meanwhile means that whatever the event, we’re treated to what is essentially “commentariat tryouts.” Twitter was already the free-floating comment section ready to wrap itself around whatever the topic is. But once CNN began reading tweets aloud on-air sometime around the first election of President Obama, and op-ed columns spread across every site, the auditions began in earnest. Now Twitter is filled with people hoping their complaints are favorited, commented on, favstarred, and viral. Complaint as aspiration—everyone competing to be the star complainer. And increasingly, to that end, the key players in each scandal are suddenly accountable for something they tweeted in 2009, 2011, their Facebook from high school. Every blog they ever abandoned is combed for something to take them down and prove they are not good enough, pure enough, to keep their status. All of it is conducted in the manner of possible oppo research, as if it were all a campaign for president. It’s no longer enough to expose politicians and celebrities and reality stars—social media is increasingly everyone trying to be a reality star, because reality entertainment has become one of the few remaining ways you can transcend your economic class.

Stephen King, the latest Internet Greenhorn to make a gaffe on Twitter, is lucky he never had a Livejournal.

When I joined Twitter in 2008, it wasn’t like this at all. To me then, it was a radio station to the party that was my online reading—friends and people I was interested in posting links to what they found interesting, and occasional commentary on it. I never knew what I’d get but I usually liked it. Like many, I enjoyed the breaking-news aspect of it—the way you could see a story develop. If journalism is the rough draft of history, Twitter quickly became the rough draft of journalism, as Nicola Bruno, a researcher for Reuters, said in 2011—describing the new “Tweet first, verify later” culture of news. But at some point the rough draft of the rough draft of history got pretty rough. And then I was subscribing to Today in Tabs, the newsletter that tells you the answer to “What are we mad about today” in funny sentences that are also hotlinks, and then I thought what is the damn point if I need a cheat sheet to what used to be my cheat sheet?

I’m not trying to suggest these are worthless outrages—all of those are issues I care about. And I don’t think anything has gone wrong with Twitter per se. To the extent something has gone wrong with Twitter, it is just what’s wrong with the Internet, much in the way a jukebox is only as good as the crowd playing it. If Twitter is full of conflict, it’s because the Internet is full of conflict, because the world is. I get the anger—I won’t pretend I’m above it.

And if Twitter is frequently called “The Outrage Machine,” it is because things are outrageous. In the U.S., we’re living out the result of decades of bad environmental policy, bad foreign policy, bad tax policy, bad education policy. Our politicians claim to be driven by polling as a way to represent us, but too often it is just news as misinformation horse race report.  We’re a people bombarded with superhero films and cop shows at a time when there’s so little actual justice.

If the ruthlessness on Twitter shocks you, well, it isn’t a ruthlessness only found there. This ruthlessness is everywhere—you may be projecting. Our economy and political system operate on a lack of forgiveness. We bring our children up now with zero-tolerance policies in the schools—can we really be surprised if we and they use them elsewhere? One bad credit report, one bad night at the hospital with a $30,000 bill and no insurance, one firing, one bad book, one bad tweet and you’re gone, consigned to a permanent underclass status forever. No way out. Our president had to make a deal with a few major companies to hire the long-term unemployed because not having a job became the quickest way to never get hired—we’ll see if the companies follow through. If there’s no forgiveness online it’s because there’s no examples of forgiveness anywhere in American life.

Meanwhile, underneath the prevalence of the public apology is a great public wrong. And so we, the public, we want someone to do something. We want the offending column fixed, the black woman comedian hired, the bill to pass, banks to lend safely, clean drinking water, health care, a job, even just a book recommendation we can count on. We want action on whatever it is, and we go to Twitter for it, feed fatigue and all, because there, unlike just about everywhere else, we still get what we’re after.  Twitter, for all the ridiculousness there, is one of the few places where there’s accountability at all for any of this. While it may feel dangerous that no one is above being taken down by Twitter, it also means that in its way, it is the one truly democratic institution left. It may be terrifying that it is the one place you have to be more careful than most, but that is also why, for now, it still matters.

I’m not, it turns out, sick of outrage. I’m sick of what is outrageous. I wouldn’t want to change Twitter. I’d rather change America.

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