Last year, a couple of young guys in the pickup community created a deliberately offensive article for Medium.com about the female writers at XOjane. Not because they wanted to offend people for some personal benefit (it was published under pseudonyms) but to trace and observe the process.
As you can imagine, it caused a stir.
You could call it trolling. Or you could call it a social experiment.
I can see it both ways, if only because I’ve been there myself. Sometimes the only way to wake people up to problems in a system is to make a totally mockery of it.
In a fairly evenhanded and insightful write up this month, they made one observation that stuck out to me. Almost nobody read the article organically or sincerely. The vast majority of the pageviews came directly from bloggers and social media personalities who claimed to be very upset by it. The people who presumably wished the offensive story didn’t exist ironically did the most to propagate it.
The authors singled out the loudest voice, Felicia Sullivan, who tweeted about the article numerous times and looked at her history of similar such outrage. They settled on a term: Rage Profiteer.
I think the concept is worth exploring.
A rage profiteer is a person or a website that traffics in outrage. Who pretends to care passionately about certain causes but in fact thrives on regression, controversy or bad news because it gives them an excuse step into the limelight. In many cases, they drag up obscure, unknown or specious news items that the public was otherwise ignorant of so that they may gain from it. You could argue that they have a symbiotic relationship with what they claim to oppose—because without it, their platform would be greatly diminished.
Valleywag is such a site—despite being preposterously guilty of what is wrong with the tech scene—for without minor events to rage at, the site is starved for content (and was previously shut down for that reason). Salon.com, as we’ve noted before, is particularly fond of outrage porn. I hope that I can also say—devoid of political or gender implications—that the feminist blogosphere relies in part on such stories. It’s Anil Dash inserting himself and fanning the flames of every NYC related tech controversy.
It’s common offline too, on both sides of the political spectrum. We’ve seen the accusation leveled at Al Sharpton. We’ve seen it with conservatives and the so called ‘War on Christmas.’ It often begins with good or even pure intentions, but the line gets blurry—fast. Especially when the money—and the pageviews—comes rolling in.
In each case, these sites and causes have large audiences who are not aware of how much they are manipulated to generate attention and headlines (and possibly book deals or television appearances for the personalities involved). The owners quietly get rich because of it.
But back to the blurry line: it’s one thing to take an issue that’s right in front of all of us and calling it for what it is—sexism, racism, offensive, stupid, unethical. It’s quite another to take something that hardly anyone would have seen and brandish it like a weapon.
It makes sense that this would be a profitable enterprise. As Jonah Berger has uncovered, anger is one of the most viral emotions. It’s not only viral but it also specifically triggers a lot of the most lucrative online behaviors, from leaving comments to repeat pageviews to the same story and of course, social shares and reblogs.
I’ll tell you a funny story. When I was doing this kind of marketing, a small blogger came to my attention. Her name was Amanda Hess and I noticed she would basically write about anything related to sex or controversy. So for the launch of Tucker Max’s book and movie I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, we created a bunch of stories that were specifically designed to catch her attention.
Like, I pretended I was working for an ad publisher who rejected a bunch of Tucker’s offensive ads and was “leaking them.” Amanda published the story. I sent her “screenshots” of ads we’d run on religious sites and she did a piece on that too. Except the ads never existed; I just photoshopped it. We put fake comments on the stories and sent angry emails and made up a handful of other “scoops” just for her. None of this was ever questioned, almost no real journalism was done, because it would have gotten in the way of churning out as many indignant posts as possible. In other words, she was not only popularizing what she believed to be offensive or deliberately provocative—she was taking things that were not even real and reporting them as news so that others could get upset.
The whole experience was rather enlightening for me and made for a bunch of theories that eventually made their way into my first book. Mostly, Amanda claimed to hate Tucker and everything he stood for, but she sure did benefit everyone involved, including herself. Not only did the stories garner hundreds of comments, a lot of traffic and generally dominate her blog for some time, all this attention eventually landed us in a column in the Washington Post and a bunch of other places. Since then, Amanda’s career has taken off. From the Washington City Paper, she’s moved from site to site, getting bigger each time.
I’ll point you to a less funny story: A few months ago the internet was abuzz because Ani DiFranco had dared to host a conference at a plantation in New Orleans that had once housed slaves. Now of course, this is preposterous not only because there was no indication that she had bad intentions but you can’t take two steps in the South without touching something touched by slavery. The White House was built with slave labor—multiple presidents lived in it with their slaves. It’s a terrible legacy in which everyone is complicit.
But simplifying the story made for good internet rage and places like Salon.com, The Huffington Post, Daily Dot and Jezebel all covered it. And there was even a petition. Was anyone actually mad about it? Possibly—but only because they thought everyone else was! Eventually, Ms. DiFranco moved her conference and apologized. We could all pat ourselves on the back after—we made a real difference here! We sure came out strong against chattel slavery! They won’t be bringing it back on our watch!
Well this week, I read a long article in the New Orleans Advocate about an attorney who had spent millions of dollars of his own money to turn a famous old plantation into a museum about the history of slavery and its effects.
As I read it, I wondered if the blogger wheels were turning. After all, the founder of the museum was white and supposedly some groups were mad that he wasn’t following some of the normal historical procedures on his mission. I also wondered if they weren’t going to get mad, were they going to cover it at all? Turns out, no—not really. It’s too boring. The guy seems to be a genuinely good guy. But Blake Lively getting married at another plantation? Well that just absolutely must be brought to the public in mocking and angry tones, according to Gawker.
This is telling. The profiteers claim to care about certain causes—but really, when it comes time to publicize things making a difference they are conspicuously silent. There’s no money in it. No pageviews.
You see this quite regularly in stories about race. One of my friends, the author and journalist Ethan Brown often sends them my way. It’s quite easy to get readers riled up about misappropriation in a music video or the lyrics in a Lorde hit—but the mass incarceration of black folks? Courts that prey upon the poor, or poor and black? It’s issues like these, which take time, thoughtfulness and real expertise to explore, that would make more of a difference than all of these ridiculous articles written by generalist bloggers who wield outrage for gain.
They’re “angry” but the emotion doesn’t translate to empathy or advocacy. They’re too busy driving “hate-traffic” to Katy Perry music videos. I mean, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have watched this one if it wasn’t for a Jezebel article. Which by the way, is why artists do ridiculous stuff these days—so they’ll get written about.
This endless cycle of outrage is not without its costs. It is also not without distinct and clear benefits to the people within the system. Writers like Sam Biddle or Amanda Hess have made names for themselves off the backs of these stories. They cash real checks and are feted around town and toasted at insular little parties. They are not doing this for you—or for the unfortunate—but for themselves. The intentions may have initially been good, but they’ve long since turned rancid and selfish.
Now, we can’t stop these rage profiteers—it’s pathological with them. But we can reduce the profits. We can say, with our clicks, we know what you’re doing here and no thanks, I won’t be paying you for it.
Ryan Holiday is the editor at large of Betabeat and the author of The Obstacle is the Way.