Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Outrage as Internet Genre


For hate readers like me, it does not get much better than this story:

Over the past few days, we’ve received some rather interesting information about the good [law] professor’s love life. The reports go something like this: “Professor Bobbitt married one of his students! Over the Christmas holiday! She’s a 3L at Columbia Law! And a Turkish princess! They were married at the Supreme Court! By one of the justices!"

As is generally the case with juicy gossip, most of this is true — but some of it is not. Here’s the real story, based on my interview with Professor Bobbitt himself. And wedding photos, of course…

After reading the piece, I felt the unmistakable grip of outrage closing itself around my thoughts and emotions. Why did a wedding give me the near irresistible urge to grab a pitchfork and join the mob rampaging through the comments?  One reason is because the authors purposefully designed the piece to elicit that kind of response from the readers, despite the otherwise upbeat tone of the post.

Unsurprisingly, outrage (and controversy in general) generates attention. But given the widespread use of this particular writing device online, I thought it would be worthwhile to sketch out the basic features of the outrage genre.


I. Otherness

The author of an outrage piece must sufficiently distance the readers from the subjects of the piece in order to prevent the readers from empathizing with the subjects and their circumstances.

The article at hand proudly trumpet's Prof. Bobbitt's elite resume (degrees from Princeton, Yale and Oxford, as well as a teaching post at Columbia Law). While he and his bride could not get married in New York because of difficulties in obtaining her birth certificate, he overcame this mundane bureaucratic hurdle by asking his friend, the Supreme Court Justice, to perform a spur of the moment ceremony in her private chambers.

Likewise, the bride, an accomplished equestrian who will work in the financial industry is also presented as a jet-setting member of the global elite.

The effect is to portray the husband and wife as belonging to an element of society totally unmoored from the world the rest of us must live in.

II. Violation of a Social Norm

With the "otherness" of the subjects stifling the audience's ability to identify with or empathize with the subjects, outrage pieces move on to discuss how the subjects transgress social mores.

Three jump out immediately in the article on Above the Law:

1. Ms. Ondalikoglu was a student of Professor Bobbitt who began dating him after a long car ride to an academic conference. Given the underlying power imbalance of a student-teacher relationship, many readers will jump to the conclusion that Prof. Bobbitt inappropriately used his position to lure a much younger student. That Ms. Ondalikoglu subsequently withdrew from Prof. Bobbitt's class indicates at the minimum, a violation of at least some sort of institutional norm at Columbia.

2. The couple eschewed a long courting process and decided to get married after only four months of dating.

3. Professor Bobbitt, at age 63, is 38 years Ms. Ondalikoglu's senior. Given the couple's previous description as aloof members of the elite, their age difference hints at another transgression- their marriage is not based on love, but is a mutually beneficial arrangement that increases the social status of both Bobbitt and Ondalikoglu. The readers on Above the Law have seized on this particular point with a great deal of enthusiasm. I chalk it up to the importance of social prestige among the lawyers who read ATL. Unearned prestige is an especially gross transgression.



III. Publicity Seeking Behavior

It is not enough for an outrage piece to cover the violation of a norm and then deprive the transgressors any hope of sympathy from the audience. The key to an outrage piece is that it portrays the subjects as seeking out publicity, attention, and in some cases validation for their behavior.

Prof. Bobbitt does not shirk in embarrassment from an interview (which according to social norms, he should). Instead, he engages ATL with gusto. Bobbitt boasts during the interview that his close friend and renowned Constitutional Scholar Akhil Reed Amar sent several bottles of wine to the ceremony. Bobbitt even gives ATL pictures from inside Elena Kagan's chambers in the Supreme Court.

If elements I and II were laying down several dry sticks and dousing them with gasoline, element three is striking a match and igniting the white hot flame of outrage. Readers are primed to think poorly of Bobbitt and Ondalikoglu because of their behavior and their membership in an "other" class. Instead of seeking forgiveness, or even projecting modesty, Bobbitt proudly touts his actions. The audience has no barrier to prevent them from judging harshly. At this point, the comments section explodes with vitriol.

Conclusion

An outrage piece can take a few forms. The author might write approvingly about the subjects (as this ATL author does) or they can actively root against the subjects. An outrage piece can even be autobiographical. The responses to autobiographical pieces are typically more unhinged because of the perceived narcissism of the author (See for example "Did I forget my son’s birthday again?In the insane parenting scramble between Halloween and Christmas, oneperson always get short shrift: My little boy")

An outrage piece is different from summoning the great Internet Hoard to hack the FBI or defend Wikileaks. Those cyber-protests ostensibly have objectives (whether legitimate or just the desire to create Joker-like chaos) as their motivation. Outrage pieces have no goal other than to generate page views. 

Blogs are page view machines. Savvy authors have figured out these machines run best on the combustible fuel that is outrage. None of this is particularly earth shattering, but it drives a significant portion of the Internet and these pieces are increasingly common. I've found the resulting outrage often deafens any discussion of why the pieces are so effective in the first place. Hopefully this post can add a little substance. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to grab that pitch fork.

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