The Outrage Economy

In the 1990s, in the media industry there was a great deal of discussion on how the rise of the internet had given rise to an attention economy. Traditional media were going to need to focus on engagement and quality of content to win attention in a newly competitive landscape. What we forgot in our naivete is that outrage and conflict is an ancient human path to attention too.

What has transpired instead is an Outrage Economy, where the leverage of outrage plays in two directions regardless of your politics, beliefs or viewpoints. Outrage is everywhere, but it plays constructive or destructive roles depending on whether it is used to seek change in the world or simply to seek more attention as an end in itself.

Outrage

But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Robert Frost, Fire and Ice

Outrage is everywhere. On every side of every issue, we have outrage. The internet has enabled communities of outrage to form and to grow around every position and every issue. It can feel like our polarisation is greater than ever. We talk far more about our divisions than our commonalities.

Outrage is a moral human emotion. In the ancient world, outrage and the social stigmas, taboos and morals on which it rests were dividers of cultures. We signified in and out of our groups with outrage at the practices and cultures of others. We vilified and excluded others, at times at the cost of their lives. Violence in this context was seen as the defence of a group culture, ethic, identity and morality.

When outraged we face a choice, to focus on its moral implications for our own actions or to focus on our rage against others. These two paths lead in different directions.

The Two Paths of Outrage

Not all outrage is equal. When we seek to understand the impact of outrage in our society and our economy, we need to realise that outrage comes in two forms:

  • Outrage seeking Action: a constructive cycle of leveraging outrage externally to seek collective change
  • Outrage seekinG Attention: a destructive cycle of leveraging outrage to seek an audience

Seeking Attention in the Outrage Economy

Much of the discussion of outrage in our media is part of the Outrage seeking Attention path. Whether from trolls, protesters, media, corporate or major political figures, outrage can be leveraged to win and retain attention and to build audiences. Like Mercutio’s dying words in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, attention seeking outrage is the ‘ plague o’ both our houses’. The path of Outrage seeking Attention works equally for any side of politics, any ideology, any cause and any belief system. Outrage seeking Attention is an equal morality employer.

This path is ultimately a destructive spiral as these outraged audience requires ever greater outrage to remain engaged and there is always the danger of losing ones audience to a practitioner of greater outrage. Tabloid media, demagogues and totalitarians have been masters of the cascade of outrage seeking attention, particularly in the form of outrage at all forms of the Other. In a world where many depend on the monetisation of eyeballs, outrage seeking attention is a well worn path.

The Seeking Attention Path is ultimately an inward one. Whether in the promoter or the audience the focus is on ego and a sense of inner superiority. We are outraged at Them. We are better and share our differences to Them. Attention demands no check with an external reality and there is little need for consequences. We don’t ever need to engage Them in real life and if we do our outrage prevents effective engagement.

Attention itself is validation of the outrage and our quest. The outrage exists within a bubble of believers. The outrage can and will endure. Outrage must remain to bind the group and even grow to sustain attention and its salve for the ego. Outrage without seeking collective action in a diverse community is never tested and can never be satisfied.

Seeking Collective Action in Community

The Outrage seeking Action Path may seem similar. However, the focus of this path is to create change in the world. Creating that change will require practitioners to go beyond the bubble, outward into the world.

Individual action can be performative and part of attention seeking. However achieving sustainable and scaled change requires actions that engage a wide community of stakeholders. Achieving enduring change requires collective action and engagement from those stakeholders to help advance the plan.

Shouting a plan in outrage is very different to putting a plan into action. All kinds of forces, including the outrage and resistance of others must be navigated in getting others to change. As frustrating as those community interactions may be, as impure the resulting changes and compromises may seem, they move the discussion from a moral feeling to a practical reality in a diverse community. Practical change seeks to engage others to reflect on their reaction to circumstances and then to act. The original motivating outrage may well remain a motivation for some but be a barrier to successful action in a wider community.

Action means we have to engage with the diverse views and capabilities of the world. Fostering this engagement and collective action to improve our world builds civil society. If we alienate and exclude others, we risk our collective action failing to deliver a sustainable change. If we engage others in our outrage, we do so to prompt them to act and to change and they too must carry that into the world. Transforming outrage into collective action may adapt our plans and the actions to addressing a moral concern but community engagement, not alienation, is the constructive path forward.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

WH Auden, September 1, 1939

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