In 2015, I wrote Why you want to make readers emotional, and included this line: “In the future, I’d like to avoid articles that make people angry, but even that can have its place.”
As it turned out, anger had its place in my blog post last Monday. Last week’s post did incredibly well on Twitter, sparking a lot of heated discussions about cartoons. While I watched my blog post tweet’s likes and retweets spike, I took a look at what else was catching people’s attention on Twitter. Stuff like:
- A wrestler I’ve never heard of getting dunked on for opining that all anime is bad;
- Kadokawa’s PR trainwreck after firing the director of Kemono Friends;
- The latest stupid thing Trump has done (and there are too many to count).
It’s not a coincidence: people are most likely to share stuff that makes them furious. In a study of online sharing of the New York Times, content that made people emotional (sometimes joyful, but usually irate) was shared nearly ten times as often as other types of content. “If something makes you angry as opposed to sad, for example, you’re more likely to share it with your family and friends because you’re fired up,” the researcher told a reporter.
Additionally, while positive vibes can take effort, reacting in anger is often simple to do. And once you start a negative cycle, the instant feedback can become addicting.
I’ve got an idea about the psychology behind this. Years ago, when I was a newbie journalist, I helped dogpile onto another reporter who was already getting a bunch of hate. It’s not important and I don’t want to get specific, but she wrote an article that upset Magic: The Gathering fans.
I wrote my two cents on it, on Twitter of course, and something shocking happened. Like most journalists who write about geek fandom, especially if they sometimes reference *eyeroll* feminism, I had a slew of hecklers who were always ready to drag me down. What was so amazing was that these people, who were always so quick to insult my articles about geek topics and even quicker to question my knowledge about Magic: The Gathering, were chiming in and agreeing with me! People I usually got daily insults from were palling around with me, and as embarrassing as it is to recount now, it felt euphoric.
If you are wondering why a certain Youtuber went seemingly overnight from inclusive feminist to transphobic Red Piller, this is probably why. White women like us are privileged: we can easily be accepted into communities that used to send you death threats by shifting our message to something haters find more palatable. The only downside is abandoning the people in need who you used to support and oh yeah, also your soul.
After going back to writing my usual articles, and watching my new “friends” go back to being detractors, I realized that the cost of getting approval from these people was too high. However, I remember what it felt like to suddenly obtain the fleeting reward of approval from my most vocal dissenters, simply by putting down another woman journalist. (They couldn’t possibly turn around and do that to me, right? Leopards would never eat my face.)
Pair that approval with that rush of righteous anger that comes with re-sharing something I disagree with, and it’s obvious to me why we can’t quit. We’re hard wired to share negatives, which go viral unlike anything else. Plus, the people who are most capable of making your life a living hell go mellow (and who cares what decent people think?). It’s easy, too: you don’t have to be clever, you only have to be mean.
A constantly angry blog or social media presence can make for plenty of viral material, but in my opinion it’s not worth the elevated blood pressure. It’s also less likely to be truthful. Ever wonder why fake news spreads so quickly? Fake stories are designed to tap into your emotions and make you so mad that you share before you consider checking the facts. You’re angry or frustrated and you want to release some pressure by passing that emotion forward. When I put it that way it sounds kind of selfish, and not like something a happy person would do.
That’s my conclusion: happy people don’t do this. People who feel good about themselves don’t feel an endless urge to stoke their anger, to blow off steam in a way that hurts or calls out others, or feel a need to drag you down so they can feel a little better, even for a moment.
When you’re about to share something that makes you mad, first think about why you’re sharing it. Does it confirm a negative opinion you’ve held about a person or group of people, making you feel smug that you were right? Are you helping to gang up on somebody who said something dumb on Twitter because your boss made you feel powerless in front of a client, and this person is a convenient punching bag for your feelings?
(That’s not to say there aren’t good reasons for sharing stuff that makes you mad—in the New York Times, an exposé of reprehensible conditions at New York nail salons once inspired hundreds to boycott manicures and pressured the governor into ordering an emergency measure. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t always share infuriating stuff with the intention of creating change.)
Our cycle of negativity is irresistible. But it isn’t good for us. It’s nice when one of my blog posts does well, but as it started to get attention, I began to feel as jittery checking Twitter as if I’d had four cups of coffee. Better to share things that make the world a little better, even if they’re not going to go viral.