Why The Bad Guys Win In Social Media

If you were to go by Hollywood’s logic, it is not uncommon to see the bad boy getting the girls, the notoriety, the fame, and everything else that comes with it. Transforming that from fantasy to reality, however, can be tricky, as there are plenty of good guys with great lives and have all of the aforementioned. But if you want to get noticed in social media, being an ass is most likely — at least statistically — the easiest way to make your way to the top.

Pissing people off is almost as much an art as it is an annoyance. It’s all about emotion, and the easiest way to evoke emotions is through anger. So it comes as no shock that a small group of people who are much more intelligent than I am went searching for a way to prove it.

This group consisted of several British and Slovenian researchers who did statistical analysis on over 1.5 million message threads from over 18,000 users on BBC’s online discussion forums. The focus was entirely on emotion and conversation activity. The research paper published by the group goes into great detail about how exactly the usage of negative content (flamebait) can gain traction in a social setting for discussion:

“At the level of the entire Forum negative emotions boost users activity, i.e.,participants with more negative emotions write more posts. At the level of individual threads users that are more active in a specific thread tend to express there more negative emotions and seem to be the key agents sustaining threads discussions.”-from Negative emotions boost users activity at BBC forum, Cornell

In yet another interesting bit of research, Digg took center stage of statistical analysis as researchers put computers at work to crunch the content and comments that were posted. The findings were very similar, and it accomplishes three main points:

  • Demonstrate how the social communities emerge with users interlinked via their comments over some popular stories;
  • Reveal that an important part of the driving mechanisms is rooted in the emotional actions of the users, overwhelmed by negative emotions (critiques);
  • Show that the bursting events with users’ emotional comments exhibit significant self-organization with the critical states.

Essentially, all of this research has lead to the conclusion that posting flamebait (i.e., content meant to stir up negative emotions and responses) is much more effective at evoking responses and active discussions. Or, as Mike Thelwall, the head of Statistical Cybermetrics research group, summed it up: “If you want a long chat, don’t start by saying ‘I love this!’, at least not online.”

Counterintuitive? You betcha!

 

Negativity

People act and react to negativity. One of the best examples is the last United States presidential election. Anger from the public — young and old — spurred incredible voter turnout. Not only did this evoke a response, but it also resulted in what some had previously considered impossible. Using this logic, we can see how it could work in a social media landscape.

Are you more inclined to respond to someone who thanks you for the great work you’ve put in over the years or dismisses you for having a strong belief contrary to their own? Even though the former is probably the best one to react to, emotions are likely to flare up with the latter scenario.

If you just so happen to be someone with thick skin, this could prove to be a real meal ticket, particularly on blogs, video sharing sites, and other media that could generate money through views and discussions (and hey, if you want to go searching for negativity, YouTube comments are always filled to the brim with them).

When considering the very definition of flamebait, however, you can see that this plays off of another word: controversy. It could be easy to tie these two things together, even though their meaning is fundamentally different: the purpose of flamebait is to generate a negative response, and the purpose of controversy is to generate a discussion, which just so happens to result in plenty of flaming.

Simply ask someone in a public media format whether they prefer Democrat or Republican, Wii or PS3, or vanilla or chocolate, and you will have the closest thing to a guarantee that you’ll spark an intense conversation. (Which means I probably should have been a political blogger).

Many consider evoking an emotion on the Web as the whole point of social media. Some just so happen to be better at it than others. But does it have to be through anger and negativity?

 

The Morality Issue

To create content solely for the purpose of flaming seems quite low, doesn’t it? That logic alone doesn’t necessarily prompt useful, meaningful conversations — it simply creates active ones. And while I happen to play the role of skeptic quite well in my writing, I never have considered the possibility of writing a post for the sake of merely attempting to piss everyone off, and that is true for two reasons: (1) I don’t think I could handle such negativity, and (2) I don’t think it would help keep me employed very long.

And while I admit that some of my post popular writing has been such where I have brought up controversial topics with negative reactions, I cant go as far to say that they were intended to evoke negative responses. True, some have resulted in overwhelmingly negative feedback, but that is never the intention. In truth, I’d love it if everyone who read everything I wrote agreed with me — but that is utopian thinking, and it doesn’t make for a much interesting discussion, right?

But this brings up another issue. What is the difference between the intention and perception? For example, what if I stated that I hate America? Many would be upset, but I would expect that quite a few would agree with me as well, especially with how the economy, government, and general attitudes have been as of late. I believe it would be a controversial statement, but hardly as an intention to stir up completely negative emotion or start an all-out flamewar.

But consider if I had said this on the night of 9/11, a time when America could have been considered at its weakest. If I had written that on an Internet forum that discusses American topics, I’m sure it would have instantly been considered flamebait material. That would likely have been the result, even if all of the today’s issues were problems at that time.

My point is that the situation, timing, and events at any particular time could have a serious impact on the interpretation of what is being said. This means that flamebait could be misunderstood as controversy and vice versa. So, perhaps those who are actually considered assholes in social media are simply doing their best to create controversy, and we are misunderstanding it to be flamebait material. But that is one for the psychology geniuses in the world to figure out.

Everything aside, negativity and controversy are supposedly big winners in social media. I assume that many have figured it out and plan on exploiting it. And if you remember that epic failure on Google’s part where Google ranked negative content higher than good content, you can see how well it could potentially work in someone’s favor.

I just hope that this news doesn’t spread. I already consider all spammers in the world to be the biggest jerks out there. Having to deal with actual jerks would be so much worse. But I fear that we are all going to have to get used to reading more about why this person or that person hates the Internet, Apple, and pretty much the whole entire world.

Written by James Mowery

James Mowery is a passionate technology journalist and entrepreneur who has written for various top-tier publications like Mashable and CMSWire. Follow him on Twitter: @JMowery.
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Comments
  • http://barkles.com Diesel Laws

    Very true. For years negativity has scared and strengthened me as a person via the internet.
    While watching a Youtube video one day I scrolled down and read the comments – most were flaming political and moral views that were loosely related to the videos content, but overall, it was creating a point of discussion.

    This situation (and years of similar scenarios) led me to create Barkles.com – a for and against discussion forum (currently in private build stage) which allows anyone to have their opinions and watch as people join their side or ‘Bite back’ – and win points for doing so.

    Sometimes instead of fighting with the way things are (realising that negativity/opinions rules the internet) you need to embrace it, work with it and allow it to continue to develop. Afterall, difference in opinion helps with human evolution, right?