To get one’s news in such a highly mediated fashion is clearly dangerous. The ersatz dialogue which occurs on Twitter can give the misleading impression that all opposing opinions have been given a fair hearing, and thus that the dominant opinion at the end of the day must be the inherently superior one. No need to weigh the various arguments yourself, Twitter already did the work for you. Touted for its promotion of decentralized and democratic dialogue, Twitter more often enables the rapid formulation and dissemination of orthodox opinion. At the same time, if you maintain a bit of critical distance, watching the construction of conventional wisdom on Twitter can teach you plenty. You can see which arguments trump others, which positions are taken to be unassailable, what affect works best. Taken as a whole, it’s an unprecedented wealth of sociological data.
Observing Twitter in this way, one quickly notes that an addiction to outrage seems to afflict writers across the political spectrum. Opponents are castigated for being insufficiently scandalized by the atrocity of the hour, and authors of offending posts are roundly demonized and ridiculed. Silver linings are rarely sought in bad news, common ground with adversaries seldom found. The right is arguably more reliant on this Manichaean rhetoric, but the left has a strong habit too. As opinion crystallizes on Twitter, posters become increasingly uncompromising, attracted to whichever position most strongly attributes moral purity to their own side and depravity to the other. Meanwhile, anyone who would criticize an outraged writer’s moralistic tone risks appearing too callous or naïve to realize the enormity of the crime at hand—whether it’s Obama’s visit to an Amazon warehouse or a university’s experimentation with MOOCs. Outrage may look like moral bravery but, on Twitter at least, it is safe as can be.
Twitter, hell; it was always like that on blogs, too. That whole system of social media provides a neverending supply of cheap stimulation for adrenaline junkies, as well as a permanent stage where they can perform their manufactured outrage for an appreciative audience. One of my favorite aspects of this faux-moral performance art is when, lacking the usual visual cues of authentic real-life anger, the performer is required to simulate hizzorher vein-popping, carpet-chewing, spittle-launching fury — in text form, which obviously requires a certain amount of both mental and physical composure. It never fails to tickle my absurdist funny bone, imagining someone sitting quietly at their computer, composing a fictional representation of barely-controlled psychotic rage (with no typos or misspellings, even!), and then taking pleasure in the plaudits. What did these people do before there was a twitosphere to provide them with some semblance of meaning in their empty lives?