I’ve been on vacation since last Friday. Possibly the best thing about vacation is that I don’t have to use Twitter, which is a rather grim part of my job on a regular work day.
As I wandered back into the wilds today, I discovered that people on Twitter are Very Mad because Louis C.K., a comedian, made jokes at a comedy club during a comedy set. The jokes were vulgar and edgy and inappropriate. The exact kind of jokes that Louis C.K. has been telling for two decades, and that once earned him near-worshipful praise from the very people who are now Very Mad.
Also, there is — or was, at some point in the last few days — a secondary outrage over comments made by TV chef Andrew Zimmern about Chinese food restaurants in the Midwest. Apparently Zimmern said that Chinese restaurants in that part of the country are often “horsesh*t.” This is an observation that every person who has ever eaten Chinese food in the mid-west has also made, probably verbatim. But people were Very Mad about it, especially on Twitter, and now production on Zimmern’s Travel Channel show has been halted indefinitely.
There have certainly been other outrages and other things that people on Twitter were Very Mad about over the past week or so. They boiled, bubbled, and evaporated almost immediately, leaving no trace. Even the Zimmern thing seems to have mostly dissipated already. My brief investigation shows that the bulk of Very Mad Tweets were written late last week. The angry swarms have moved on. No doubt, the current Louis C.K. kerfuffle will be but a distant memory by Wednesday or Thursday of this week. Speaking of which, does anyone remember why people were mad at Kevin Hart? Something to do with jokes about transgenderism, I think. Or was it homosexuality? Was it an n-word thing?
No, wait, that was another I missed from this past week. Chris Rock got in trouble for not correcting Ricky Gervais and Louis C.K. when they used the n-word on an HBO show seven years ago. Back in 2011, Gervais, C.K, Rock, and Jerry Seinfeld filmed a discussion show for HBO where they sat around talking about comedy for an hour. During the course of the conversation, Gervais and C.K. joked about the n-word. Rock egged them on. Nobody cared about any of this for almost a whole decade. Then suddenly some Very Mad people on Twitter discovered the clip, posted it, and a two or three-day Twitter outrage cycle began. I’m only aware of this because people emailed me about it. If you go on Twitter now, you won’t see any hint that any of this ever happened.
You especially won’t find any hint of any of this if you put your phone down and interact with people in a three dimensional environment. Here’s a fun experiment: stop a random person on the street and say, “Hey, what do you think of that whole Chris Rock controversy”? Or, “Say, what’s your take on those impudent Louis C.K. jokes?” Or, “Excuse me, can I ask your opinion on Andrew Zimmern’s comments about mid-western Chinese food?”
I’d bet 100 dollars that the first 50 people you stop will answer with some version of, “What the hell are you babbling about?” That’s because normal humans in the real world don’t care at all about any of this. They aren’t paying attention to it. They have no idea what people on the internet are Very Mad about, or why they’re mad about it, and they aren’t taking the time to find out. The woman in front of you at the grocery store check out line is focused on her coupons. The guy driving by you in traffic is worried about lay offs at his job. The girl sitting across from you at the coffee shop is studying for an exam. None of these people care what Ricky Gervais said on HBO in 2011.
And here’s the thing: even if the girl at the coffee shop or the guy in the car actually stopped at some point during the day to write an angry tweet about one of these subjects, they still don’t really care. They aren’t going to do anything with their outrage. They aren’t going to spend all day thinking about it. It costs nothing to send a mad tweet or write a quick “Can you believe so-and-so said such-and-such” Facebook post. They churned it out almost reflexively and then went about their day. It doesn’t really matter to them.
That’s the most striking thing about internet outrage: it’s so utterly, completely, aggressively empty and meaningless. It has no natural real world consequences. I say “natural” because it can, and often does, have artificial real world consequences. Kevin Hart really did lose his Academy Awards gig. Andrew Zimmern really is suffering professional punishments. But that’s only because corporate decision makers don’t understand the extremely obvious point I’m making and that you already knew. They cave to non-existent pressure. They think that a bunch of mad tweets actually mean something. They don’t realize that they could simply ignore it and it would all go away within a few days. They cede to the demands of Twitter avatars for no reason. They’re like an armed security guard frantically opening the bank vault for a 6-year-old wielding a squirt gun.
It doesn’t help that the media so often inflate the significance of Very Mad internet posts. They write whole stories and construct whole narratives around the angry tantrums of six or seven random nobodies on social media. They tell us that “outrage has erupted” when the eruption consists of a few dozen salty tweets. That’s not an eruption at all. It’s more like flatulence. It makes a gross sound, smells bad, and then disperses itself into the atmosphere. Just hold your nose for a few seconds and wait it out.
So, let’s make this our collective New Year’s resolution for 2019: to treat internet outrage with the dismissive contempt it deserves. Laugh in its face. Or better yet, yawn. Then put your phone down and live your life, knowing that somewhere out there, in cyberspace, people are whining because so-and-so said such-and-such. And it doesn’t matter at all. It is sound and fury and angry-faced emojis, signifying nothing.