Melissa Gorga’s rape-y marriage advice book. That woman who is making 300 sandwiches so her boyfriend will propose to her. Every article written about Miley Cyrus (including this one) and everything written in response to those articles, calling them slut-shaming, and everything written in response to those, calling out Miley’s racial appropriation. “Blurred Lines” and the perpetuation of rape culture (or not).
There’s a lot to be outraged about on the Internet these days.
If you follow Jezebel, xoJane, Gawker, or even just check up on Twitter/Tumblr/Facebook periodically, you’ve probably seen posts like these, and their accompanying barrage of comments. There are even a few articles (both satirical and sincere) that can teach you the “how to” of being outraged on the Internet. But how does all of this anger help the cause? Does it affect anything at all?
There’s no denying that the Internet, and especially the advent of social media in all of its instant gratification glory, has provided innumerable benefits to movements everywhere. Internet communities, formerly housed on forums/messageboards but found today on Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter, have been crucial for recent political and social movements including the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Arab Spring protests. The web confirms that whatever is you believe or enjoy, you’re not alone (see the ASMR phenomenon on YouTube) and provides the tools for like-minded people to find and communicate with each other.
Additionally, the web has created a democratization of ideas (in everything, really, but we’re going to talk about journalism specifically here) that has allowed opposing voices to speak out against mainstream television/print media. Take your Twitter feed, for example: you may see tweets by an old high school friend, a feminist blog (LunaLuna, for example!) and CNN, all in a row, presented in the exact same size, character limit, and format. This equalization has allowed the arguments of typically underrepresented sections of the population—women, people of color, LGBTQ, etc.—to reach readers in the same way as more “reputable” news sources, resulting in the exploration of issues that would not normally be portrayed in the mainstream media, as well as the introduction of alternative views (see the Miley slut/slut-shaming examples). The resulting niche media outlets (like this one) that may not have been able to gain the funding or required local readership in print publishing are able to flourish in the low-cost, global world of the Internet.
The question, really, is about how effective these Internet communities and sources are at provoking actual social change, as opposed to merely momentary outrage.
The Western world is inundated with online content non-stop. I’d call it over-saturated, to be honest, and many agree—studies have shown that we simply cannot absorb the bulk of information that we encounter every day on the web (and that when we do take the time to read the entire article, we comprehend and remember less when it’s electronic than when we have the magazine in our hands). Our relationship with online media is something like that of a recent 21-year-old with alcohol: suddenly so much is open to us that we binge and end up puking on the sidewalk outside a 24-hour bakery before midnight.
The content to filter ratio seemingly close to 1 million to 1, the web has become a place where we encounter so much information that its difficult to parse out what’s true, what’s serious, and what’s bunk. Open-access online scientific and academic journals—originally lauded as a way to open academia to a larger audience—have taken a hit for their level of quality after a Science magazine study found many of them published a fabricated study after little or no peer-review. Literally Unbelievable, a blog that posts Facebook users’ sincere reactions to satirical articles from The Onion, is hilarious, yes, but also reminds us how quickly and how distantly information and misinformation can spread on the Internet. We are overwhelmed with figuring out how to manage all of the info we have access to.
We are faced with dozens of controversies on a daily basis, a fact which makes it nearly impossible to really devote any time or energy to each individual cause. This has caused what a New York Times writer coined “slacktivism”: the idea that we are somehow aiding society by simply sharing a link to our Facebook walls. In an article that I find shockingly devoid of self-examination, Elizabeth Wurtzel declares today’s youth the “lamest generation.” I have many problems with this piece, including the fact that the middle-aged author presumes that because today’s artistic/social progressions are not happening in ways she readily recognizes (due to her age), they must not be as valid as those that came before. (This is summed up beautifully in a user comment on the piece: “The real problem isn’t that nothing is happening culturally, the problem is that corporations are failing to spoon feed these changes to Ms. Wurtzel in the manner she expects.”) Despite this, though, Ms. Wurtzel does have a point about our interactions via the Internet when she says, “A lot of people believe they are doing things when they are interacting online. They believe they have friends on Facebook and Twitter. They believe they are communicating by text and email.”
Similarly, a lot of people believe they are protesting or performing activism by posting their outrage on the Internet. Of course, it’s amazing when issues that have been swept under the rug get Internet attention that makes something happen—see the Steubenville (or now, Maryville) rape case. But, nine times out of ten, there’s a quick explosion of online indignation and it’s over.
So what can we do to make our time on the Internet more productive? Boycotts are one option—the Internet makes organizing a boycott simpler than its ever been. But a boycott only works if the people who are abstaining are the same audience that would typically be making those purchases. Boycotting Chik-Fil-A if you’ve never eaten there in your life isn’t really making much of a difference. In order to be effective, a boycott needs to reach the target’s biggest spenders and convince them why the issue is important, which is not always an easy task.
Another option, adopted by Ryot News, is to connect your story with a cause that can be benefitted by donations, should readers feel so inclined. Naturally, when donating to causes like women’s rights or gay rights, it’s hard to quantify exactly how readers’ money is helping.
The cynical (but realistic) view is that people seek out information that confirms what they already think. Is it likely that a man with misogynist tendencies is going to be searching out feminist blogs? Not very. So to me, the biggest and most important role that this online outrage plays is education. The idealist in me believes that if, for every article we see telling us “Miley is a slut” there’s one that says “slut shaming is wrong and here’s why,” it will be all the better. Not “preaching to the choir,” like we may do at times, but really making the effort to reach past our already converted audience. Social media can do this, I believe it! Facebook and Twitter users (at least in America) run the gamut from rich to poor, liberal to conservative, and all genders, locations, ages and sexual orientations are represented. This makes social media one of the best tools we have for education, despite how unwieldy it can be at times. When people ask why I take the time to read, write and re-post these “controversial” pieces, I respond as such: if even one man or woman was on the fence about their feminist beliefs, and I was able to sway them in the direction of equality, I’ve done my job for the day.
So keep on posting, angry feminists. I salute you.
Alecia is a logophile and a library bandit wanted in several states. In addition to feminist rants, she also writes essays, short stories, bad poetry, recipes and very detailed to-do lists. She currently resides in a little blue cabin in Woodstock with one fiancé, one Dachshund and one pleasantly plump cat. Find her tweeting @alecialynn.