Efficient aggregation of repugnance

The cycle of outrage on the internet seems to have a well-defined pattern by now, so if you're on your game, you have a contrarian piece which is the backlash to the backlash prepped and ready to go as soon as the outrage descends, and if you're really advanced you have the backlash to the backlash to the backlash volley in your quiver. It's an advanced play. Or you can float above it all with a meta piece about the workings of the internet outrage cycle, which I guess this post is some variant of.

In his great new book Who Gets What and Why, about market design, economist Alvin Roth defines repugnant transactions as ones that some people want to engage in that others object to even if they aren't directly harmed. For example, it's forbidden in most countries to buy and sell kidneys. If you spread a wide enough net across the world, you'll find all types of cultural practices that are repugnant in some societies, legal in others. In America it's illegal to eat horse meat; it's a delicacy in Europe. In medieval times the idea of lending money and charging interest was forbidden; today it still is in a few places, but it's a bedrock of the banking system most everywhere else.

The shooting of Cecil the Lion was a flash fire on social media this week. And of course, suddenly everyone was outraged at the hunting of lions, leading inexorably to the backlash wondering why we aren't more outraged at the shooting of unarmed black teens, or 5 endangered elephants. Why aren't we more outraged at ourselves for eating chicken?

It is too exhausting for most people to live in a state of moral outrage all the time, and so it largely simmers below the boiling point of our consciousness. Every so often, though, some event occurs that comes in a weaponized package, in the perfect form to capitalize on the viral amplification powers of the internet. For example, the murder of a lion so beloved that he is, despite being an apex predator, referred to by the adorable name of Cecil.

And so a practice that many people probably objected to but rarely thought of—trophy big game hunting—suddenly swells up like a tsunami and exceeds our collective dam of ignorance. The internet is more efficient at transmitting information than any human invention ever, but not all information travels equally efficiently. I had never heard of Cecil the Lion a week ago. Now he's up there with the MGM lion and Simba as the most famous lions in the world. His face showed up in every one of my social feeds again and again, his title a perfectly compact hashtag: #CecilTheLion.

More and more, we'll see these flash floods of outrage, because the internet is the most efficient aggregator of repugnance in history. Formerly disparate, even mild pockets of repugnance can carry disproportionate magnitude on social media if formatted optimally to fit into the entry slot of the internet's megaphone. It's one reason something can lie dormant for years, like Bill Cosby's sexual crimes, and then suddenly become the nexus of national outrage. As one victim Tamara Green said:

In 2005, Bill Cosby still had control of the media. In 2015, we have social media.

It goes both ways. Lobbying is one area where this dynamic can take on a destructive power. A narrow interest can aggregate its strong feelings into targeted, weaponized money that can overwhelm the mild objections of the majority. And so we have corn subsidies and other oddities locked into place. It's not great for most of us, but most of us don't care as much as the small but vocal corn lobby.

But for many other issues which have long wished to ignite the public imagination and support, there is no better time. Buzzfeed was one of the first media companies to recognize that some types of news, packaged a certain way, attain exponential organic distribution given the way most people discover news through social media.

Alan Moore predicted this all in his great graphic novel Watchmen. Those of you who've read it will recognize this as an early predecessor of Cecil the Lion:

The most contagious Super Bowl ever

I didn't watch the Super Bowl live last night, I was at a dinner with friends, out of reach of a television, so I first registered the game's presence secondhand, through social media, on the drive back home as I flipped through Twitter and Facebook. To get a contact high just from secondhand social smoke gave me a sense of just how newsworthy this Super Bowl was. One couldn't engineer a more perfect Super Bowl for maximum viral transmission in this socially networked age.

Super Bowl commercials were, of course, the original viral video, long before the internet was a thing. They continue to be, even if they seem a bit like your parents trying to post a Vine or a company Twitter account using the word fleek. Corporate appropriation of what's organically trendy is always awkward when done earnestly; far better to do it in a more craven, meta manner.

Doritos perhaps realized the lunacy of trying to engineer viral videos professionally long ago and just held an annual contest to crowdsource Super Bowl ads from the public. I'm not sure if they did so again this year, but what a clever way to enlist the ad agency of thousands of citizens yearning for their 15 minute of fame, in the process collecting videos with a style coded to wink at those sophisticated consumers who've already become accustomed to the blurred lines between the professional and the amateur, between content and advertisement.

The Nationwide Insurance ad got flak for its horrific twist ending, one which hearkened to the memetic narrative of The Sixth Sense in a tragicomic misread of what emotional tonal range an audience gorging itself on nachos and chicken wings would tolerate. The only way this ad could have landed harder was if the child at the end announced that he'd died from contracting the measles because his parents were crazy anti-vaxxers.

[Speaking of The Sixth Sense, Haley Joel Osment guest starred in this remarkable clip from Walker Texas Ranger that could have been an early draft of the Nationwide Super Bowl ad, too.]

Still, one can see why an insurance company might overreach with such an ad on this of all nights. Why spend so much money if not to enlist over a hundred million viewers to speak your name for days and days after the event?

Never in history has a clever punch line had such value, and advertisers don't bother hiding their hopes and dreams: many ads came with their own hashtags and/or URLs, even some of the more serious ads. Who ever thought we'd see what are the equivalent of virality tracking tags get so much airtime. I'd love to see a tag cloud of Super Bowl commercial themes, it would read like the collective inventory of the American subconscious: puppies, beer, boobs, hamburgers, fast cars, mythical fathers, beauty, sex, junk food, celebrities, and, in a nod to the times, website hosting and mobile games.

The halftime show seemed just as precisely calibrated to echo through feeds and timelines and blogs in subsequent days. From the moment Katy Perry emerged from the tunnel wearing a Katniss-like “girl on fire” body suit, astride a two-story golden lion float, no person with a social network account and a phone with any remaining battery life could resist proclaiming their ironic (or not) appreciation to their extended social graph. Facebook and Twitter took the collective gasp of the nation and unfurled it in vertical scrolls, one status update or tweet at a time.

Katy Perry was the perfect choice for the viral Super Bowl. She has more Twitter followers than anyone on earth. Her music is engineered in Swedish laboratories for maximum pop appeal. Her music is so catchy that it stands for catchiness; trying to decipher what Perry stands for is fruitless. Whereas Beyoncé will pose in front of a giant sign that reads FEMINISM and it will feel natural, I have no idea at all what Katy Perry feels about any subject.

We'll never know if the dancing sharks would have become an instant meme if Left Shark hadn't gone rogue, but as with many of Perry's on-stage companions, they were just psychedelic and visually peculiar enough to distract from her inability to really dance and to start another wave of online gawking. Left Shark will forever live on as a metaphoric hero for individualism, or lack of preparation, or people who just don't give a damn, or potheads, or anything, really. Left Shark is, at the most basic level, a generic viral mascot. Here's hoping the Left Shark emoji is already in the approval process in Japan or wherever the papal council of emoji calls home.

We got Missy Elliott, because everyone loves a comeback, and everyone loves Missy Elliott. We needed something for the cool kids.

Then the game. The pregame statistics indicated it would be one of if not the closest matches in history, and it was, but how it was close seemed designed for maximum drama.

One player suffer a gruesome injury. NBC could have given us slow-motion replay after replay from all different angles a la the Joe Theismann broken leg, but thank goodness they refrained.

One player caught a touchdown and then celebrated by pretending to defecate the football onto the field. The shocking thing is that NBC missed it, robbing the event of some of its potential buzz.

An epic drive led by league heartthrob Tom Brady. Then a miraculous catch. All topped off with a shocking twist ending, a decision to pass from the one yard line with now famous Beast Mode in the backfield, a choice that seemed as if Pete Carroll were trolling the internet. How better to enrage armchair quarterbacks everywhere than to have the game end on a decision whose merits were statistically murky; unleash the statisticians! If that wasn't enough, the game's final kneel downs were marred by an on field brawl, extracting a bit of moral outrage.

All this adds up to the most perfectly contagious Super Bowl of my lifetime. Maybe Buzzfeed directed it. Late night talk shows already seem to have adjusted their strategy to produce bite-sized videos that will travel smoothly across the internet the next day, a smart move since no one stays up to watch those shows live. It's only a matter of time before programs like that, or perhaps even events like the Super Bowl, Golden Globes, Oscars, and MTV Music Awards just release online press-kits as the events unfold with key viral moments encoded as animated GIFs for easier social sharing. I'm ready. Frankly, I'm tired of pointing my cell phone at the TV screen.