The line between love and hate clicks

Emma Teitel on our love/hate relationship with the Internet

David Freund/iStock

The future, as told by science fiction, is one big lobotomy. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, people wander future Earth numb, their emotions suppressed by a government-regulated drug called soma. In Kurt Wimmer’s dystopian film, Equilibrium, characters are force-fed Prozium, a drug that dulls their senses in exactly the same way. And in the ever-popular post-apocalyptic zombie genre, the mindless prey on the mindful, converting them into aimless, flesh-eating dolts. Take this fictional formula and apply it to planet Earth in the year 2013, however, and it becomes clear that sci-fi writers make lousy fortune-tellers. After all, the future—in all its FaceTime, Google Glass glory—is finally here, and it’s not “nothing” that we feel. It’s everything.

From the cuddly to the cringeworthy, the touching to the toxic, social media have given birth to a world full of suffocating emotion. Cat memes follow Facebook eulogies about late grandmothers, photos of friends’ new babies, raw footage of suicide bombings in the Middle East, inspirational blog posts about people beating breast cancer, YouTube clips of gay couples proposing marriage to one another in the most sensational ways possible, and yet more and more cat memes. The result is an addictive and exhausting mélange of rapid visceral reactions; one minute you’re foaming at the mouth, and the next you are utterly verklempt. To spend a good chunk of your waking life online, on social media, is to alternate manically between two polarizing states of emotion: pure joy and unmitigated rage. The problem with this brave new world? Guess which of those emotional states we prefer?

A recent study out of China’s Beihang University indicates that rage wins out every time. Researchers there determined, by studying 70 million postings on Weibo (China’s equivalent of Twitter), that “the correlation of anger among users is significantly higher than that of joy.” In other words, people are far more likely to share bad news than good news. And bad news travels fast. According to the researchers: “The angry mood delivered through social ties could boost the spread of the corresponding news and speed up the formation of public opinion and collective behaviour.”

The media have obviously noticed this collective zeal for things that disturb and annoy, something they’ve channelled in their propagation of “hate click” stories: exaggerated, SEO (search-engine optimization)-friendly headlines and columns churned out in the hope that your anger will prompt you to share them online. Slate’s recent think piece, “College women: Stop getting drunk,” is a perfect example of this. Another good example from a few years ago, but no less rebarbative, is my own, “So Rob Ford doesn’t like the gay Pride parade? So what?”

The most successful and unsavoury hate-click story of late comes to us from Return of Kings, a viciously misogynistic and mean-spirited “masculinity” website.

In late November, a blogger who goes by Thuthmosis published a story on “ROK” called “Five reasons to date a girl with an eating disorder.” A man should date a woman with anorexia and/or bulimia, writes Thutmosis, because she will “cost less money” and “her obsession with her body will improve her overall looks.” Utterly moronic, right? So moronic, it should be stricken from the Earth and I should be fired for reiterating it here? If only. More than one million people read the story, and it was shared online more than four thousand times. I saw it posted on my own Facebook feed again and again. And guess who shared it at lightning speed? The very people who were enraged and offended by the article’s contents. Our love to hate is obviously stronger than our desire to see that which we hate dissipate into irrelevance—which is what would have undoubtedly happened if everyone opposed to the Return of Kings article, and articles like it, had simply ignored it.

Hate-clicking, writes Alexandra Petri in the Washington Post, is “the Internet equivalent of rubbernecking at accidents: You expend a lot of effort to see something that will make you actively unhappier.” Not only does it make us unhappier, it promotes the very thing that made us unhappy to begin with. Pre-Internet, an antediluvian creep like Thutmosis would be meeting his he-man woman-haters’ club in the dim light of his mother’s basement or dorm room, but technology’s permanent reach gives him new-found credibility and validation. He may be a monster, but thanks to his cyber lynch mob (a.k.a. his captive audience and unknowing PR team), he is an opinion-maker, too.

The Internet has a way of democratizing debate to the point where anybody with a bad attitude and an IP address can make the nightly news, or launch an all-out cultural war. It has a particular knack for turning the virtual equivalent of bathroom wall scrawl into the issue of the day. But it doesn’t have to.

We don’t have to rage. We can look away. Gathering online with like-minded friends to castigate an obviously asinine argument made by an obviously asinine person does not make us smarter or more enlightened. It makes us boring, redundant and lazy: zombies of recycled rhetoric. Maybe those sci-fi writers weren’t so wrong after all.

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