In Addition to Ragebait and Doomscrolling

post by mike_hawke · 2020-12-03T18:26:18.602Z · LW · GW · 20 comments

(Sorry for the coy title--I want to give the reader a chance to guess what the addition is.)


One day I opened up the front page of reddit. I was not signed in and I was using my browser's incognito mode.

The following list composed about 25% of what I saw as I scrolled. See if you notice any themes. (As hinted by the title, I think there is something other than outrage here.)

















(At least another 25% was made up of r/news, r/worldnews, r/politics, r/PoliticalHumor, and so on.)

Like many people, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the psychotoxic effects of concentrated outrage, political polarization, doomscrolling, misinformation, and filter bubbles. So I was a little surprised by my own interpretation of the above list:

I submit that the most salient theme is contempt.


Here's a sentence that has been at the back of my mind since I came across it:

Scandal is great entertainment because it allows people to feel contempt, a moral emotion that gives feelings of moral superiority while asking nothing in return.

-- Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis

Let me first admit that contemptuously bonding over the misbehavior of others probably can have real benefits. But I claim that in the case of the reddit front page, these benefits are clearly outweighed by the costs to one’s personality (not to mention epistemics). 

So, Haidt says contempt feels good, reddit appears to be a prime example, and I'm now asserting that it's psychotoxic (and possibly addictive, at least when taken via intravenous drip bottomless scrolling). Presuming all of that is it actionable? I think so.

If you're ambitious, you could quit social media for a month and pay attention to how your thoughts and attitudes change.

More coordinationally, perhaps a social stigma can develop around this kind of overindulgence, similar to the increasing stigmas toward ragebait and doomscrolling.

But at the very least, you can simply notice that something you're reading is triggering contempt, as opposed to outrage or doomfeelz. I think this awareness by itself restores a decent chunk of mental autonomy. Personally, I like to also take the proactive step of rehearsing questions like, "why did they end up so stupid/scandalous/cringeworthy?" and “what led me to avoid such faults so well?” I find that the answer (whatever it is) often feels strangely liberating--it diminishes the tasty allure of the contempt, and makes it easier to refocus my attention on something better.

EDIT: Thanks Daniel Kokotajlo for offering the term scornporn in the comments!


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by lsusr · 2020-12-03T21:20:41.842Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My first instinct when reading this was to open Reddit in incognito mode to attempt to reproduce the 25% measurement. I had intended to collect statistics of 100 posts. I closed it after <10 to avoid memetic contamination.

comment by Adele Lopez (adele-lopez-1) · 2020-12-03T20:42:36.151Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Minor nit, but it's worth noting that while /r/TikTokCringe started as a contempt subreddit, it's now just the main subreddit for TikTok content enjoyed genuinely.

Replies from: aa.oswald
comment by aa.oswald · 2020-12-04T18:20:19.318Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wonder if that is because /r/TTC couldn't figured out how to differentiate cringe from irony and post-irony, or if it just got big enough that /r/all converted it ?

comment by pjeby · 2020-12-03T20:12:18.487Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think that outrage is different from contempt in terms of being a free hit of righteous moral superiority. Outrage may create more motivation to do something, but that "something" will be biased towards protest and/or punishment, not actual problem-solving... and in the case of online media, the protest and/or punishment is likely to take the form of more posting to the same media outlet. So the optimally addictive mix would need both outrage and contempt. Too little contempt, and pure outrage would be exhausting. Too little outrage, and not enough people post vs. read.

For me, the optimum solution to these problems is to avoid as much as possible any media streams that are consolidated by Big Social. For example, I never, ever, ever look at my Facebook account's main page, or look at my notifications. Instead, I browse things I want to browse in their own little information silos. (That is, specific groups or pages.) RSS feeds are helpful tools for this, which is why RSS is so largely dead.

The problem with Big Social isn't that you end up with filter bubbles, it's that Big Social tries to consolidate things in such a way as to control your information consumption priorities, while pushing "discovery" of things you didn't actually want or need to know... like Twitter randomly showing me stuff from people followed by people I follow, or stuff that people I follow liked or replied to.

comment by mike_hawke · 2020-12-03T18:51:17.433Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I guess I should at least attempt to make a decent neologism here:


Meh. Maybe someone else will think of a good one.

Replies from: daniel-kokotajlo, KaynanK
comment by Daniel Kokotajlo (daniel-kokotajlo) · 2020-12-03T21:29:42.377Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Replies from: mike_hawke
comment by mike_hawke · 2020-12-04T03:19:56.919Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

i love it

Replies from: Yoav Ravid
comment by Yoav Ravid · 2020-12-05T12:49:57.198Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps it's worth adding to the post

comment by Multicore (KaynanK) · 2020-12-04T14:16:41.597Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I thought we were already calling it Sneer Culture.

Replies from: aa.oswald
comment by aa.oswald · 2020-12-04T18:24:46.510Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would say that Sneer Culture is a subset of "scornporn". Sneer Culture is generally about "X licensing" whereas scornporn is about "Contempt generating content that makes you feel higher on the social hierarchy." 

comment by emanuele ascani (emanuele-ascani) · 2020-12-04T10:48:14.700Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This reminds me of the sentiment Eliezer expresses here [LW · GW]:

When someone politely presents themselves with a careful argument, does your cultural software tell you that you're supposed to listen and make a careful response, or make fun of the other person and then laugh about how they're upset? What about when your own brain tries to generate a careful argument? Does your cultural milieu give you any examples of people showing how to really care deeply about something (i.e. debate consequences of paths and hew hard to the best one), or is everything you see just people competing to be loud in their identification?

comment by Gitdes · 2020-12-03T20:25:30.904Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

>perhaps a social stigma can develop
Social stigmas get traction via contempt, so that sounds promising.

comment by Clark Benham (clark-benham) · 2020-12-03T23:35:23.062Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's a similar pattern in Rap music, the misanthropic self promotion. The message of basically every lyric is either "I'm super successful" or "I know no bounds in what I will do"; either case has the listener emphasize with the sentiment of being better than others/not caring about others. I stopped listening when I noticed the avarice it was promoting, how I could only fantasize about being a $MM success, which not having a path to improve toward just gives the fantasy of becoming $MM.

comment by Dagon · 2020-12-03T21:39:26.999Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Contempt porn"?  Related to "outrage bait", which describes much of the rest of social media.  Both imply a sort of trick played on the brain, without outright saying there's no place for a little of the base emotion.

Or perhaps go further - I figure out if contempt is ever a useful emotion.  It can save time and help choose strategy for dealing with aliens (including children and <dispreferred political party>).  But in all cases, accurate modeling would be more useful.  And it's certainly not beneficial to most stated goals to seek out things to be contemptuous of.

In any case, I don't think "isolate yourself from the sources" is the best primary approach (though it's perhaps part of the approach, or an effect of a working approach).  Figuring out something like [LW · GW] for the undesirable reaction is probably a better direction.  Notice when you're attracted to this judgement, and interrupt it with a more compassionate and nuanced evaluation.

comment by Charlie Sanders (charlie-sanders-1) · 2020-12-06T07:12:23.989Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you’re interested in this topic more and have an hour and a half to burn, there’s worse ways to spend it.

comment by TheThinkateria · 2020-12-06T04:59:03.507Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A while back I published an article about a similar idea on my blog, the Thinkateria. 

comment by BrakTalk · 2020-12-04T06:28:17.286Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm currently reading Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges.  This theme of contempt figures prominently in that book.