In Facebook’s Courtroom

Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker:

Josh-Kafkaesque-690Earlier this month, when TMZ released a video of Ray Rice punching Janay Palmer, his fiancée (now wife), in an Atlantic City* elevator, the online response followed a pattern that’s both familiar and strange. It began straightforwardly enough, with people on Facebook and Twitter sharing the reactions that best articulated their outrage. (“Watch Keith Olbermann’s Takedown of the NFL!”) But, from there, it grew more baroque. In my Facebook feed, people hate-likedterrible reactions to the video. Others wrote impassioned posts addressed to supporters of Ray Rice, even if they didn’t know any supporters. Some used the video as a “teachable moment” to share facts about “#domesticviolence,” or helpfully suggested as-yet-unblamed parties who could also be criticized. (“Why is no one talking about the role of alcohol in this?”) A widespread response was meta-outrage: asking, in an outraged tone, why there weren’t an even greater number of outraged Facebook posts about Ray Rice.

There’s nothing senseless about any of this: the world is a maddening place, and so the Web, which reflects the world, has a lot to be angry about. If anything deserves to become a target of collective frustration and anger, it’s the Ray Rice video. At the same time, though, there can be something unsettling about the Web’s communal rage, even when that rage is justified. The Rice video is part of two unfolding stories. On the one hand, there’s our increasing awareness of unchecked violence—an awareness facilitated, as Margaret Talbot pointed out in a recent Comment, by viral videos distributed on the Web. On the other hand, there’s Web culture’s increasing tendency toward anger as an end in itself. In recent years, the Web’s continuous pageantry of outrage, judgment, and punishment has become an inescapable element of contemporary life. We all carry in our pockets a self-serious, hypercritical, omnipresent, never-ending, and unpredictable justice system. Pick up your phone and court is in session; put it down and it’s in recess.

More here.