Facebook and Fashionable Outrage: a problematic trend.

In the past few weeks, there seems to have been an added emphasis in my Facebook newsfeed of friends “liking” a Post. I’m capitalising “post” here because there needs to be a difference – when it appears as “Friendly McFakename likes Harmless Example’s post” it’s usually a genuine interaction – Friendly likes the post wherein Harmless has explained that they have a new job, or that they’ve had a great day, or that they successfully invaded a micro nation.

A “Post” on the other hand is the recent trend of Facebook users liking a post that’s been made on a particular page, usually a corporate page, expressing outrage or dissatisfaction with some policy or product. Occasionally there are quite nice things, like someone writing to a charity thanking them for the support, but the ratios are definitely weighted in favour of the negatives.

And so it becomes a case of a random person venting their frustrations, and attracting the attention of hordes of people who click the “like” button in an attempt to show their support or agreement with the issue that’s been raised. Some of these issues are reasonably valid, but a fair majority of them are simply First World Problems, and while they may be legitimately frustrating they’re also not demanding the types of castigation that are being thrown at them.

Off the top of my head, I can recall a Post made on the Facebook page of Supré, a popular clothing store for women that sells clothes of varying levels of quality but usually at quite a cheap price. The Post was an outraged attack on the sizing of their clothes, accusing them of favouring trim-bodied women and marginalising those of a more ample figure. This might have been a fair point, but one of my best friends, a regular customer of Supré, pointed out the simple truth that they do offer their clothing at the sizes the Post was demanding.

Now, as I’m not regularly in the habit of buying women’s clothing, I might not be one to comment here, but it does seem that a few things can be read into it. Firstly, if a store does not offer clothes in your size, this is unfortunate, and I can understand that it might be demoralising, but there are other places to shop. Secondly, and I may be wrong on this one, so correct me if I am, but I don’t think stores are obligated to carry their clothing in all foreseeable sizes. If a clothing brand doesn’t stock an item in your size, this is not a violation of your rights, but simply bad luck. It would be a problem if they marketed themselves with a mission statement that they cater to all women of every shape and size, but as far as I know, in this instance, Supré does not.

I think a Post like this takes off so well because people identify with a few things inherent in its existence. The most optimistic of these is that other Facebook users identify with the issue at hand and want action to be taken. In many cases, this is valid, but in a case like the Supré Post (if my friend is correct and such sizes are readily available in store) than this is unfounded.

The real appeal in these Posts is the sense that by liking them, you’re helping fix the problem. Again, there are instances where this is valid, but the reality is that most of these Posts are tackling minor problems that usually result in a slight inconvenience (if not an outright inability on the Poster’s part to admit their own laziness) and are not all that important. By liking a Post, the user is outwardly saying “this is a problem and it’s not ok” when in reality it functions more as an opportunity to say “look at ME being in support of this cause – isn’t it great that I’M doing something about it?”

I have no doubt that this is why the KONY 2012 campaign was such a success. Regardless of the widely-disputed intentions behind the cause, it became fashionable to care about it, and users were able to show how “in” they were with the fashion, while at the same time exerting little to no effort on their part.

And herein lies the problem. Nobody wants to be labelled as the person who does nothing when a situation arises. It is considered worthy and worthwhile to support charities and community causes, but at the same time, there are far more people who are unwilling to inconvenience themselves to do it.

I freely admit that I did not support the KONY 2012 campaign, partly out of my suspicions to the intention behind it, but mainly because I didn’t see that the action met the problem. At the end of the day, what did KONY 2012 achieve?

Well, many people were suddenly able to wax poetical about the plight of child soldiers – I didn’t need to be told that this was a bad thing, as I already knew it. Many people were able to proudly support a worthwhile cause – and immediately had to defend themselves against the hordes of people actively campaigning against the cause because of its shady background. And many hundreds of thousands of people were able to “Cover the Night” and “raise awareness” – which resulted in hundreds of stickers and posters being placed in public, an act that (regardless of intention) resulted in littering and vandalism en masse.

This last action is why I am particularly cynical towards the cause (and I must admit also towards its supporters) because this doesn’t meet the problem. Let’s look at the problem in a simple nutshell:

Joseph Kony is a war criminal who has done many bad things, not least of all recruiting armies of child-soldiers who have been subjected to his cruelty. Joseph Kony should be overthrown and brought to justice, and no child should have to suffer his cruelty anymore.

Fine. Yes. I can agree with all of that. It’s perhaps radically idealistic in a cruel world, but optimism in the face of adversity is never a bad thing. I’m not going to discuss the ramifications of how KONY 2012 blew the situation out of proportion because quite simply – I don’t know what the situation is exactly at this day, and I’ve read too much on either side of that argument to be able to make a reasoned statement; for every argument in favour of the campaign, there were just as many against it, and for all those who argued reasonably on either side there were those who argued idiotically – but hey, it’s the internet and that’s nothing new.

But the specific actions of the KONY 2012 campaign, namely “raising awareness” do not meet the actual problem. Yes – we are all now infinitely more aware of Joseph Kony and his specific crimes, but this is because of a video that unexpectedly went viral, ironically getting more attention to its aims of drawing attention than the Cover the Night campaign did in its entirety. Once the popularity of the video hit its zenith, the cause should have been rerouted – rather than buying stickers and posters to raise awareness, the money should have gone directly to the campaign – and again, I’m not going to argue the disputed facts of where that money is really going, because a Google search can provide you with all the dispute you want.

But the Cover the Night campaign achieved little more than vandalised street poles, because of the nature of why the cause was so popular. I won’t argue that the KONY 2012 campaign was not successful, because it was – it drew the world’s attention and everyone had an opinion, regardless of what side of the debate they were on. But now, not even a full six months later, when was the last time you saw an impassioned status regarding KONY 2012? If you’re Facebook resembles mine at all, its been pretty absent of KONY-related material for a while, and this is endemic of the current trends of social-media-activism: the attention paid to a particular cause is as ephemeral as any other trending topic. Like any fashion, it eventually goes out of style, and less attention is paid to it.

This tendency towards liking Posts is problematic, and I call it Fashionable Outrage. While it’s not true of every single person, the general disposition of any Post-liker is that they want to be on the “right” side of the argument, and the extent to which Fashionable Outrage is fashionable leads to a tendency to ignore the facts.

Let me just specifically state this though: liking a Post does not make you a bad person, but more often-than-not, the reasons for liking a Post do not match the underlying intentions or problems in the Post.

If we go back to the Supré example, any number of people could like that Post because they agree that it’s demoralising to shop somewhere that doesn’t cater to their size, because it seems an active exclusion on the store’s part, essentially saying “you aren’t welcome here because of X”. Further still, people may like the Post because they want this situation to change – in the specific case of Supré this is unreasonable as the change wanted doesn’t need to be made, because the Post was ignorant of the fact that the sizes it was demanding are supplied.

But my argument is this: Fashionable Outrage has become so popular that most people like the Post because “someone’s daring to say something” and that is what is liked, with only a tenuous connection as to what’s really being said. And before I’m accused of oversimplifying or generalising (although I’ll admit that I am a little bit) I will say that I often read the comments to see how the Posted issue is being discussed, and the traits that become typical across a number of different Posts are what lead me to this conclusion.

Everybody loves a rebel, and though it’s becoming more and more common and trite to see it, most Posts are a fashionable act of rebellion. The common Post is one person venting a frustration in the public space where it can be seen by any number of the people who have liked that page, and then onto the millions more who are sent to the Post when a friend of theirs likes it, until the point where a Post approaches going viral through a series of systematic exposures via the like button.

But to elucidate a little, these Posts don’t only include Supré and KONY 2012; they cover people being unhappy with the Olympics coverage and complaining on a broadcaster’s page, they cover people being dissatisfied with the stories presented on a news programme and expressing their distaste, they cover people raging about how their tax dollars are being spent, about how their favourite singer has cancelled a tour, how their favourite muffin store has changed the taste of their choc-chips – the list goes on. A Post does not always cover something trivial, it is not always a First World Problem, it is not always a complaint – but unfortunately, the fair majority are.

And a Post existing as a trivial complaint about a First World Problem is not an inherently bad thing – I, like any number of people out there, don’t like minor inconveniences and will voice my frustration about them – but coupled with Fashionable Outrage, we’re seeing a trend of people getting worked up without wanting to inconvenience themselves to do anything about it.

Tonight, a friend of mine liked this Post:

Now, in fairness to her, she is a nurse who used to work in a nursing home, and regularly discusses the problems she is faced with, and the injustices she sees as part and parcel of her profession – she’s one of the rare people who can like a Post like this with a fair amount of personal justification and forethought.

But, in essence, this Post is like a lot of the other ones – simplistic and ultimately pointless. It’s not hard to know that the elderly who spend their final years in nursing homes are often hard done by; it’s not hard to find out that a lot of nursing homes do charge incredible rates to house them; it’s not hard to imagine the loss of dignity that must be felt being forced to surrender your infinite freedoms, to nominally ensure your wellbeing. But it’s incredibly easy to oversimplify these points and compare nursing homes to prisons.

Two of my best friends (one is the same who informed me of Supré’s sizes, the other my housemate) both work at the same nursing home, as did the friend who liked this Post; I don’t work there myself, but I have heard numerous tales, both good and bad, in regards to such an institution. The good comes from the amount of affection they both have for their residents, and how eager they are to continue working an often thankless and underappreciated job because of how much they get out of helping these same residents. The good also takes the form of hearing how much effort has gone into actively not turning this particular facility into a prison. And the bad? That most nursing homes are underfunded, understaffed and underappreciated. The stigma of “putting someone in a home” is not unwarranted, but it’s also not universally applicable. For most people, it’s not something that actively enters into their consciousness (and conscience) and so it’s easy to ignore – it doesn’t seem like something one needs to be actively responsible for, and as such, aged care is not prioritised as much, leading to the problems that nursing homes face.

I’m not that naïve – nursing homes are businesses like any other, and like all business there are some that are run better than others. It’s not a bad thing to point out that mistreatment is bad, but to do it in a way like this Post is damaging to its own argument. Now, thankfully, a stroll through the comments on that Post uncovers many people pointing out its flaws, but that’s met by significantly more people saying “good point!” or agreeing with the Post and proudly saying “copied and pasted.”

So in this specific case, no – prisons are not synonymous with nursing homes. The so-called benefits of prison over nursing homes are stated without regard to things like the size of prison cells, the Spartan functionality of their surroundings, and, perhaps most significantly, the entire point of a prison! Instead, this Post relies on the vaguest of assumptions – that prison is bad, so nursing homes must be worse if prison’s a better alternative. It is literally trying to portray the lives of prisoners as more luxurious than that of nursing home residents, and asks you to balk at the injustice of this.

I know the Post is using hyperbole for the sake of highlighting injustice but when it’s done by fundamentally ignoring the flaws of its argument, said argument becomes completely facile. This Post asks people to focus on the negative without offering any answers or even vague suggestions of positivity or resolution.

Fashionable Outrage kicks in because so many people can like this Post and comment in support of it, and that’s their part done – they’ve agreed that the Big Bad Nursing Homes should take better care of their residents and they’ve agreed that the elderly should be treated with more respect. And they got to do it all from the comfort of an armchair or the convenience of a phone, and the brief response of guilt they have in reading the Post is assuaged because they’ve sided in favour of the “right side” – because every conflict will boil down to “right” and “wrong” in the real world.

How many of them will then go and work in a nursing home? Or volunteer their time? Or donate money? Or – and this is the main problem – think about them again, now that they’ve said their piece by clicking the “like” button? Granted, a few will. A number of the people who hit “like” will, the same as my friend, have worked in a nursing home, or will go and do some good, or will have done something at some point in their life to warrant their position or in response to the Post, but it will be beyond the mere act of liking the Post because it’s fashionable to be outraged by it. But the sheer number of likes on that Post, as with so many other likes on so many other Posts, will have come because it appeared in a news feed, it caught attention for 30 seconds, and clicking “like” was the answer to the problem.

So, rather than hypocritically bemoan Fashionable Outrage with no answers, let me propose a few. The next time you see a Post, and your finger moves towards that like button, stop and consider. Why are you liking it? Do you agree with it? Once you like that Post, are you going to do anything about it? Are you going to boycott Supré, Cover the Night or work for a nursing home? Think about what that Post is really saying – is it saying it well, to the right people? Does it actually matter and have relevance?

And this – more than anything above all else – can you do something better for Cause X than simply liking a Post? If you come across someone posting their outrage about KONY 2012, can you stop and think, “Perhaps I can donate money to a more transparent charity that does similar work without as much furore?” Can you think, “I’ll buy my clothes from somewhere else if they don’t have my size?” Can you think of a more proactive thing to do, rather than click “like” and raise awareness to the fact that someone is whinging in a Post on a Facebook page?

To support a cause is not a bad thing, but the reasons behind it can be. As these Posts seem to grow more and more in number, and the validity behind them diminishes at an equal rate, Fashionable Outrage becomes more and more problematic, and the “support” becomes an empty gesture, which is doubled when the Post is empty to begin with. The trend of social media to dumb things down into simplistic sound bites is not helped when those sound bites become more popular than fixing the problem they’re talking about.

The internet, and the popularity and ubiquity of social media, has the potential to be a great avenue for change in the world, and to genuinely fix problems once they become apparent. If the only way you can do this is to become Fashionably Outraged, stop and think of a different course of action – you’re better than that.


2 thoughts on “Facebook and Fashionable Outrage: a problematic trend.

  1. Although I agree with most of your sentiments, I would also like to add my own viewpoint. Sometimes I will ‘like’ a Post to offer support & encouragement to the original poster, who may be actively working on the issue, or to bump up the popularity of such a post in the newsfeeds of all my friends, who may not have considered the issue. It is my hope that more exposure for a given issue will spur discussion and possibly attention from friends who can help to make a difference (while I rot away at dental school, with no spare time for charity until I graduate!)

    It would, however, be quite interesting to see how social media users responded to follow-up messages about topical Posts they’ve shared or liked! Sadly, most would probably choose to ‘ignore’, ‘unfollow’ or ‘stop receiving messages like this’, but perhaps it would wake them up to their Fashionable Outrage (;

    • Indeed! And I’m not sure I made it clear here, but my problem is a) with Posts that have little to no merit, and b) the people who hit “like” without having a genuine connection to the issue raised in the Post, or a genuine interest and show of support.

      I wasn’t meaning to imply that the mere act of liking a post on a page was intrinsically bad, but that oftentimes the motives behind either are insincere, or at the very least not as big a concern as being seen to do the right thing.

      Not every post made on a public page is a Post; not everyone who likes a Post is showcasing Fahionable Outrage. Hopefully that’s a little clearer 🙂

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