Friday, December 11, 2015

What is a rant? Reflections on social media negativity

by Gideon Lasco

Ranting is such a common behavior nowadays that many rants are devoted to ranting. In our age when expressing one’s opinion is as easy as typing a few lines and pressing a button, no one wants to be called a ranter - or a whiner or a hater - but a lot of people actualy rant without acknowledging that they are, in fact, ranting. Thus many people, overwhelmed with the negativity, are distancing themselves from Facebook; while some go on a “social media holiday”. One of my friends has even deactivated his social media accounts completely, lamenting that the world has been ran over by a “generation of ranters.”

But what, exactly, is a rant? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a rant is “to talk loudly and in a way that shows anger; to complain in a way that is unreasonable.” This definition is a good starting point, telling us that a rant is a way of communicating or complaining that is (1) loud (2) angry (3) unreasonable.

How can one be “loud” in social media? The most obvious is the lavish use of ALL CAPS, but there are other ways to be loud. Making use of a photo, for instance, makes one’s message “louder” - images can be very powerful and memes are the poetry of our time. Ranting goes for the dramatic, the sensational.

As for “anger”, we can easily see this with the choice of words. Curse-words - although their currency has been grossly inflated and they don’t have the same gravity anymore - are staple fare for rants. But a rant can also incite to anger by insulting others through witticisms, name-calling, or logical-sounding arguments. Directing the anger at someone also makes it more weighty (so-called “open letters”), and ranting is at its best when it is not just angry, but accusatory.

The crucial test of ranting, however, is whether something is “unreasonable” or not, and this is where its subjectivity lies. Many Filipinos won’t say that the Philippines is ranting about the Spartlys dispute - we would think that our claims are reasonable, and our anger warranted. Neither will many consider as mere “rants” the online posts expressing outrage over repressive regimes that gave rise to the Arab Spring. As these examples show, one man’s “rant” is another’s “grievance”.

Perhaps the non-confrontational attitude of Filipinos makes social media a particularly suitable venue to express our sentiments. Psychologist John Suler termed this the “online disinibition effect”, which draws from the sense of anonymity and distance to free people from their inhibitions, thinking that there will be little backlash for what they would say.

Rants are oftentimes signs of helplessness; people do not rant if they think there are other ways to communicate their message. Indeed, ranting satisfies the need to release one’s negative emotions, while at the same time offering the chance that the addressee would actually listen. On the other hand, oftentimes enmeshed in this need to communicate is a desire to get noticed by the social media universe; the desire to go viral. Thus instead of being a last resort, it becomes the first. Consequently, it feeds a culture of outrage, where attention is validation.


IN THE multitide of ideas and sentiments floated on social media, there are many ways to stand out. You can inspire people with beautiful pictures, enlighten them with a well-written thinkpiece, or make them laugh with your pet’s funny expressions. Psychological studies, however, have shown that “negative emotions are more contagious than positive ones”, as Finnish scholar Harri Jalonen puts in. This “negative bias” makes it understandable that many people resort to ranting.

The criteria for reason, however, should give us pause for what we label as “rants”. While some posts are clearly rants, there simply is no objective criteria we can apply for the “reasonability” of every post. During the APEC week, when people in Metro Manila were thrown into miserable traffic conditions, I observed that the people who experienced the traffic themselves “liked” and “shared” posts that gave voice to their predicament, while those living elsewhere were more likely to dismiss them as “rants”. This subjectivity of what constitutes a rant reminds us that in the act of labeling people's viewpoints (either as rants or “painful truths”; “whining” or “telling it like it is”), we engage our own ideologies, politics, and (limited) knowledge.

We should strive to move away from a “ranting culture” by delivering our messages in a way that does not incite people to more anger. If social media is social, then we must abide by social conventions: respecting others’ points of view, not taking different opinions personally, and if called for, arguing with reason, not with anger. And if social media is media, then we are all journalists now, and if we express outrage, we must do so with a committment to truth and fairness.

As for those who are in the receiving end of a rant, we should likewise exercise restraint - as well as an openness to what might actually be a valid argument. Dismissing something as a “rant” will only inflame its source. Ranting about a “rant”, like fighting fire with fire, is equally unhelpful. The cycle of ranting, ranting about ranting, and so on, ends when someone on the receiving end of a rant reads through the rant and tries instead to find out where it’s coming from.

Do we, then, need a new set of values - in this age of social media? I don’t think so. I think we just need to bring back the old ones - starting with humility.

December 11, 2015

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