Ira Furor Brevis Est

In their research paper titled What Makes Online Content Viral?, Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman examined a dataset of articles published by The New York Times over a three month period. The aim was to take a scientific approach in figuring out what sort of content spreads online. They discovered that the most viral articles were those that generated high-arousal emotions, either positive emotions like awe, or negative emotions like anger and anxiety. Low arousal content like sadness was found to be least likely to be shared. Anger spreads.

It seems to me that comments on blogs work much the same way. A good deal has been written about the negativity of online comments, and many explanations provided, like the anonymity of the poster, the separation from the person they’re communicating with and the ease of sending a few lines of text. I think all those things play their part, but there is also the element of self-selection going on. Because certain emotions are likely to generate more motivation in the reader to type out and submit a comment, the types of comments that those emotions generate will in turn dominate the overall comments pool. Since anger is one of the strongest emotions, more angry people end up leaving comments. And once one person posts an angry comment, they in turn invite more angry replies to that comment, pumping more fuel into the system and setting off a continuous reaction.

There are of course other emotions that will give the reader enough of a push to write out a comment, such as the positive emotion of awe. The dominant emotion will largely be influenced by the type of content the person is responding to. Entertaining content might generate positive responses and jokes, while content that challenges the reader in some way will naturally generate a negative reaction. Unfortunately, the sort of content that challenges us is also the sort of content that is most valuable to us, because it is only by discarding wrong preconceptions and ideas can we replace them with ones that are, if not the absolute truth, closer to our conception of truth than the originals.

In Give It Five Minutes, Jason Fried recalls a story of a conference he attended. Fried disagreed with ideas in one talk and spent no time voicing his critique afterwards, to which the speaker, Richard Saul Wurman, replied: “Man, give it five minutes”. The ideas challenged Fried, which evoked an emotion strong enough to compel him to voice his disagreement as soon as the opportunity presented itself, but by giving the talk some more time, he learned that the initial reaction was misguided, and that the ideas did in-fact have weight. Fried goes on to point out that the danger of jumping right away to refute a new idea is that you are attacking something fragile, something weak and incomplete, and rather than helping the seed grow to see how it might develop, you pluck it right out of the ground.

The knee-jerk negative reaction of online comments to ideas that challenge them is not merely something unattractive, it’s a force that acts to prevent such ideas from being voiced in the first place. This is something Ryan Holiday touches on in his new book, Trust Me, I’m Lying. Controversial ideas are shot down by snark, by bloggers using the idea as a target for their next article, and commenters mindlessly jumping into the fray. The only people who benefit are those with nothing to lose: “People who need to be talked about, like attention-hungry reality stars. There is nothing that you could say that would hurt the cast of *Jersey Shore. They need you to talk about them, to insult them, and to make fun of them is to do that. They have no reputation to ruin, only notoriety to gain.”* Fragile, controversial ideas that challenge the reader’s deep held beliefs? They’re the casualties.

Nietzsche divided society into two groups: the free thinkers who challenge existing assumptions and give birth to new ideas, and the conservatives who maintain the status quo. Both are engaged in a never ending struggle, one pushing for advance and change, the other for stability and restraint. The way comments work online is tilted towards the latter, not by intelligent design, but simply by the way the technology collides with human emotion. Anger rises to the top and acts as that restraining force, preventing new and fragile ideas being voiced for the fear of suffering ridicule and snark.

The culprit is anger, not the person voicing the comment. There is an old Latin saying, Ira furor brevis est, which translates: anger is brief moment of insanity. Anger makes a fool of all of us, however clever or stupid you may be. It’s a shame that online discussions work as convenient outlets for these primal emotions rather than helping us suppress them. Could the discussion mechanism be altered in some way to remedy this? Maybe, though I can’t imagine any easy solutions. Ultimately though, while technology can be modified to try to facilitate a particular outcome, it’s up to every one of us to be the person we ought to be, to guard ourselves against the assault of knee-jerk emotions, to control our responses and set the right example for others to follow.

August 2012