The Outrage Economy

Social media profits come from advertising revenue. As a result, companies like Twitter and Facebook care most about daily / monthly active users. Sadly people spend more time on these services when they see content that angers them. What are alternative business models? How can we create platforms that benefit our digital well-being?

A brief editors note: This is a transcript of a talk I originally gave at Redevelop Conference on 18 October 2018. I was supposed to give an expanded encore version of it last night at UX Sheffield but had to take my brilliant but clumsy partner to the hospital instead. She’s in surgery now and I’m distracting myself with Medium in the hospital cafeteria. If you’d rather watch the original scroll to the bottom of this post or hop over to Vimeo. Or if you’d rather read a snappier but less detailed tweetstorm you can do that too.

Thanks for the introduction. A few things before I start:

  1. I’m head of product design & brand at The Dots. We’re a London-based startup that Forbes has called “LinkedIn for Creatives.” So if you’re want to connect with other creators, designers, developers, freelancers or find your dream job then please check us out at the-dots.com. I’m not here to sell you on the platform but I will use it by way of example near the end of the talk.
  2. We’re hiring for a senior PHP / back-end / API type genius so hit me up after the talk or drop me a DM on Twitter. (ed. note: this has sense been filled but do drop me a line anyway if you’d like to know more about us for down the road.)
  3. I lived in New York for 20 years. So I hope you give zero fucks that I’m probably going to say fuck a fucking lot. Cool? Alright.

“We sell ads, senator.” The business model of the big social media and tech platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google is advertising. For all the praise these giants have rightfully earned for being innovators and creating companies for the 21st century they have a very 20th century revenue model.

Sadly because they’re held in such esteem it’s become a lazy default for other tech companies and VCs. I’m here to say if you community came before your business model chronologically then it should do so ethically too.

And that business model is why they have North Star metrics like Daily Active Users. They literally need your eyeballs to make money. The more time you spend on their platforms means you’ll see more ads. God forbid, you might even accidentally click on one of the damn things. This is also why you see increasingly see ads in more and more places: not just the core feeds but in stories, messages, and more.

In fact, you would be more valuable to these companies if you had segmented eyes and a giant proboscis for tapping and swiping. But let’s not give Zuckerberg any more bad ideas. But who knows? Maybe they’re already working on that in Building 8…

Anyway, this is why our once quirky, random, charming web has devolved into one colossal attention harvesting mechanism choke full of “commercial junk” in the words of Tim Wu. At the centre of all this are “data factories” and “attention merchants” like Facebook and Twitter. They are all attempting to capture your most scarce resource — your attention — and take it hostage for money. Your captive attention is worth billions to them in advertising revenue.

This is what Facebook believes to be the full range of human emotions. This isn’t just at the whim of the designers and engineers at Facebook however. It comes from an outdated idea by American Psychologist Paul Ekman that states that all humans, everywhere, experience and express six basic emotions in the same way. Margaret Mead’s anthropological studies thoroughly debunked this notion but it’s simplicity makes it resilient and it comes in and out of vogue with tech companies as they try to monetise around our emotions. The obvious downside is systems that only let us express these limited emotions risk reinforcing them in a terrible self-fulfilling loop.

That reductionist view is heightened by the fact some emotions are more equal — and more profitable — than others. A 2017 study by Yale Neuroscientist Molly Crockett suggests outrage is the primary driver of virile social media posts. Happy posts are a very distant second. “Anger is a gift” is a lyric to an old favourite song of mine from the 90s. Sadly today it’s more truthful to say “anger is a commodity.”

Because of this, social media makes outrage simultaneously more prevalent AND more potent.

It’s more prevalent because social media platforms make it a lot easier to express outrage — the tools for doing so are literally at our fingertips 24/7. The costs of expressing outrage are lower on social media than in real life — no one’s going to punch you in the face the worst you’ll get is blocked. This means that the threshold for expressing outrage is lower online than offline.

It’s more potent because it’s self-reinforcing. We react more angrily online than offline. And we know this to be algorithmically true thanks to research done by William J. Brady, a researcher at NYU. Brady studied hundreds of thousands of tweets, and found that posts using moralistic and emotional language receive a 20% boost for every trigger word used. This is good business for the social media platforms. Outrage begets more outrage. It’s not a virtuous cycle but it is a very profitable one.

Outrage isn’t just more prevalent and potent online but it’s also much more performative. This could be a problem if it creates collective illusions of public outrage, where everyone is expressing it but few are actually feeling it. And that’s likely a real problem because of something called the availability heuristic. It is a shortcut for our brains which makes us believe: “If it comes to mind easily, it must be true.” It’s a science-y way of saying “perception is reality.”

2016 was the 6th time Trump explored running for president. He also considered it in 1987, 2000, 2004, and 2011. In 1999 he ran as a Reform Party candidate, testing his platform and evaluating the response, and eventually deciding he couldn’t win. After that failure Newsweek noted there simply wasn’t enough outrage in the country to propel an independent candidate to victory.

Outrage defined the 2016 campaign: the more outrageous his words, the more coverage he received. The more coverage he received, the more viable his candidacy became. The analytics firm Mediaquant estimated that between October 2015 and November 2016, Trump received $5.6 Billion dollars in “free” earned media from this strategy, three times his nearest rival.

Zeynep Tufekci is one of the best minds exploring how social media effects politics. She’s said: “Donald Trump excels at using Twitter to capture attention. But his campaign also excelled at using Facebook as it was designed to be used by advertisers, testing messages on hundreds of thousands of people and microtargeting them with the ones that worked best. Facebook had embedded its own employees within the Trump campaign to help it use the platform effectively (and thus spend a lot of money on it), but they were also impressed by how well Trump himself performed. In later internal memos Facebook would dub the Trump campaign an “innovator” that it might learn from.”

Ann Landers was one of America’s most famous advice columnists (what you guys call an agony aunt). She said “hanging onto resentment is letting someone you despise live rent-free in your head.” “Living rent-free” has become a popular meme and insult of late because it so perfectly expresses our fears about the outrage economy and the people who thrive in it.

Outrage breeds resentment. And we live in deeply resentful times: Here in the UK Remainers resent Leavers, The North resents the South, Nationalists resent immigrants, Whites resent people of color, Men resent women, etc. etc.

It even makes us resent ourselves. It’s turning us all into assholes. That’s argument 3 out of Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. The others are:

  • You are losing your free will
  • Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times
  • social media is undermining truth
  • social media is making what you say meaningless
  • social media is destroying your capacity for empathy
  • social media is making you unhappy
  • social media doesn’t want you to have economic dignity
  • social media is making politics impossible
  • and social media hates your soul

As appealing as I find Lanier’s nuclear option, I also acknowledge there’s some implied privilege in it. Many people don’t have that luxury. They run their businesses on social media. They stay in touch with family on social media. They organise on social media. Walking away doesn’t help solve the problems for those left behind and it shirks our own responsibility in this mess. So outside of the nuclear option Lanier proposes what else can we do?

Tristan Harris and other former tech insiders at the Centre for Humane Technology and Calm Technology proponents like Amber Case have formulated strategies for living more intentionally with social media. It’s called “time well spent” and it’s well worth your time to look into that if you haven’t already.

I’ve done 1, 3, and 4 on that list. Those are all great idea from an end-user perspective but what can we do as people who design & build products to make it easier to be kind? Designer Tobias Rose-Stockwell has written eloquently on the topic and sketched up several ideas worth considering. He says:

Research on perceptual dehumanization has shown that we’re more cruel towards people in digital environments. Increasing empathetic responses like this might help re-humanize our experience of social media.
For people who genuinely want to connect with other audiences, this might give them pause and motivate them to reword their posts before publishing. Though this may not deter the majority of people who post inflammatory content, some might reconsider their language. This can be framed with basic information about how to make it more accessible to other audiences.
We do angry things that we often later regret. Having a moment to pause, review, and undo content flagged as hurtful might reduce likelihood of sharing it in our worst moments.
Might we be more civil in 1-on-1 conversation? If everything isn’t in front of a crowd might we mitigate some of the performative nature of big dust-ups? Giving a private reply — taking it to direct message by default — might encourage people to open sidebars to have conversations with less external encouragement.

Beyond just designing different interfaces we have to design different networks. That starts by challenging lazy assumptions that advertising should be the default or exclusive model for everything. There are other models: from subscriptions to SAAS direct revenue to DTC sales. And some companies like Amazon have multiple business models. At The Dots we’re able to avoid the problems we’ve been discussing today because our business model is primarily based on recruitment revenue.

Everyone who’s dissatisfied with social media keeps asking the wrong question: “what’s the next Facebook?” We don’t need a next Facebook. Obscene scale doesn’t have to be a given. The only reason it is is because of advertising. We can create smaller scale networks dedicated to the needs and wants of specific audiences — whether that be developers or designers or freelancers or what have you. At The Dots our market is creators, entrepreneurs and freelancers.

When your business model isn’t advertising and your market isn’t literally everyone on the planet you can model engagement differently. Not everyone has to visit multiple times a day and engagement doesn’t have to be predicated on shady UX patterns like infinite scrolls or algorithmic timelines. You can create experiences that are bite-sized, valuable, and respectful of your community’s time. Experiences that have a sense of closure and completeness and reward the community’s attention rather than demand it. We redesigned our homepage with those concepts in mind.

If I can leave you with one last thought… At the end of the day we should be building communities not just products. At The Dots we bring members of our community together in a monthly portfolio masterclass where they learn from each other and from industry experts and maybe even land their dream jobs. They then stay connected with one another our platform and at future masterclasses. We’re proud to be bringing people together around positive shared real-life experiences not just dividing them with negative virtual experiences for the sake of ad revenue.

Thank you for your time and attention. I hope you found the talk worth your while. Cheers.

ed. note: and thank you for taking the time to read this and if you’re so inclined please clap and keep the conversation going in the comments. Please consider reading the sequel: The Dystopia is already here.