Monetizing Anger (and the joys of goats)

David Brooks wrote an interesting story in the New York Times: How We Destroy Lives Today. It deals with yet another case where a racist is shamed on social media. I honestly don’t know the details of this individual case, but I did find the analysis interesting. Brooks writes about the ensuing journalistic onslaught:

Before you judge the reporters too harshly, it’s important to remember that these days the social media tail wags the mainstream media dog. If you want your story to be well placed and if you want to be professionally rewarded, you have to generate page views — you have to incite social media. The way to do that is to reinforce the prejudices of your readers. 

From this perspective, the problem with social media is not social media itself. The problems seem related to the old business models of the press. However, I don’t want to make a fundamental distinction between social and legacy media, because I think they overlap so much — there are actually two tails wagging each other in Brooks’s analogy. The “We” in the title of the story refers to both social media and the New York Times. The interaction between social media and traditional news outlets is fairly clear, but their relationship is not as hierarchical as Brooks wants to argue.

Thinking about this, it dawned on me that maybe news media has not changed as much as we have been told. They still have to make money and they now have many more sources, materials and, well, media to do it with than ever before. A reporter does not have to get out of his or her chair to investigate and write a news story. If they go on Twitter and find out what people are talking about, the story practically writes itself. Of special interest are things people are angry and bitter about. I think that’s what is implied in Brooks’s article, at least, and there really is a lot of bitterness and anger online. Expressing your anger online is one thing. Some people can’t help it, because it feels good. Monetizing anger is a completely different ball game.

Can the blame really be shifted on social media as a whole? Certainly some of it can. Social media businesses make tons of money from ignorance and rage. But shifting the blame entirely on social media would be short-sighted. Brooks seems to channel a view of social media that is informed by the kind of journalism he criticizes:

It’s hard to believe that people are going to continue forever on platforms where they are so cruel to one another. It’s hard to believe that people are going to be content, year after year, to distort their own personalities in service to a platform, making themselves humorless, semi-blind, joyless and grim.

Yes, there’s all that on social media. But that’s clearly not the whole story. For example, I just unfollowed about half of the people I followed on Twitter because my feed was getting pretty rancid and filled with moronic rhetoric. I think someone could have monetized some of the idiocy I got used to seeing every day, but I will feel much better with a feed that is easier on the nerves. Journalists may not have this luxury. The rest of us can do otherwise. We can unfollow the bores and follow accounts that bring us joy, like the one that posts pictures of goats every day. After all, if we really want to know about all the depravity going on in the world, old-fashioned news organizations scraping the bottom of the barrel have our back.


Source: Wikipedia

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