The muted signal hypothesis of online outrage

Everyone, it sometimes seems, has their own pet theory of why social media and the Internet often seem like so unpleasant and toxic places. Let me add one more.

People want to feel respected, loved, appreciated, etc. When we interact physically, you can easily experience subtle forms of these feelings. For instance, even if you just hang out in the same physical space with a bunch of other people and don’t really interact with them, you often get some positive feelings regardless. Just the fact that other people are comfortable having you around, is a subtle signal that you belong and are accepted.

Similarly, if you’re physically in the same space with someone, there are a lot of subtle nonverbal things that people can do to signal interest and respect. Meeting each other’s gaze, nodding or making small encouraging noises when somebody is talking, generally giving people your attention. This kind of thing tends to happen automatically when we are in each other’s physical presence.

Online, most of these messages are gone: a thousand people might read your message, but if nobody reacts to it, then you don’t get any signal indicating that you were seen. Even getting a hundred likes and a bunch of comments on a status, can feel more abstract and less emotionally salient than just a single person nodding at you and giving you an approving look when you’re talking.

So there’s a combination of two things going on. First, many of the signals that make us feel good “in the physical world” are relatively subtle. Second, online interaction mutes the intensity of signals, so that subtle ones barely even register.

Depending on how sensitive you are, and how good you are generally feeling, you may still feel the positive signals online as well. But if your ability to feel good things is already muted, because of something like depression or just being generally in a bad mood, you may not experience the good things online at all. So if you want to consistently feel anything, you may need to ramp up the intensity of the signals.

Anger and outrage are emotional reactions with a very strong intensity, strong enough that you can actually feel them even in online interactions. They are signals that can consistently get similar-minded people rallied on your side. Anger can also cause people to make sufficiently strongly-worded comments supporting your anger that those comments will register emotionally. A shared sense of outrage isn’t the most pleasant way of getting a sense of belonging, but if you otherwise have none, it’s still better than nothing.

And if it’s the only way of getting that belonging, then the habit of getting enraged will keep reinforcing itself, as it will give all of the haters some of what they’re after: pleasant emotions to fill an emotional void.

So to recap:

When interacting physically, we don’t actually need to do or experience much in order to experience positive feelings. Someone nonverbally acknowledging our presence or indicating that they’re listening to us, already feels good. And we can earn the liking and respect of others, by doing things that are as small as giving them nonverbal signals of liking and respect.

Online, all of that is gone. While things such as “likes” or positive comments serve some of the same function, they often fail to produce much of a reaction. Only sufficiently strong signals can consistently break through and make us feel like others care about us, and outrage is one of the strongest emotional reactions around, so many people will learn to engage in more and more of it.

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