TOPICS > Science

Why ranting online doesn’t help manage anger

BY Ellen Rolfes  February 28, 2014 at 3:03 PM EST
Can the online rant help manage anger? Photo by Flickr User Stefan 1981.

Can the online rant help manage anger? Photo by Flickr User Stefan 1981.

It’s hard to mistake the Internet rant, often characterized by its run-on sentences, inflammatory remarks, capital letters and liberal use of the exclamation point. Often rooted in a heightened level of expressed emotion, uncensored anger or frustration, the rant is accessible to anyone armed with a computer keyboard and an Internet connection.

We wanted to know — what are these Internet ranters really after? And does ranting bring them closer to their goal?

vice-weekAs a moderator of the cyber publication and forum TELECOM Digest, Bill Horne has read “at least a thousand” digital rants. One of his duties is to filter out the typical complaint from the rant. The rant, he said, rarely makes the cut.

“I have had ample opportunity to watch others being burned at the electronic stake as they abandon logic, courtesy, common sense and self-respect,” Horne said.

But there are plenty of places in cyberspace where people can express their wrath uncensored, from Twitter and Facebook to sites dedicated exclusively to ranting.

Many who write rants say they do it to feel less angry — the written outburst calms them.

In 2010, Leo Choi, a self-professed ranter himself, started a website called D-rant.com, an online forum that exclusively publishes anonymous rants. His goal: to provide a safe place for people to vent, without consequences. He contacted several anger management clinics and asked them to promote his website to their clients. (Fair warning: this site contains objectionable language and subject matter.) Having an outlet to air feelings can be helpful for people, he said.

Ryan Martin, a psychology professor at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, found the opposite to be true. The emotional relief, his research showed, is only temporary. People experienced a downward shift in mood after reading rants, and after writing rants, they became more angry, not less. The study was published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking in February 2013.

Also from their research: ranting is linked to fighting, both physically and verbally. By surveying visitors of rant sites, they found that those who rant online are more likely to experience consequences of their anger in the real world, averaging nearly one physical fight per month and more than two verbal fights per month. Because of the limitations of the survey’s methodology, it’s unclear which comes first — physical aggression or virtual aggression — but Martin suspects the two feed off each other.

“They express their anger badly, which is why they are on a rant site, and being on a rant site encourages them to continue expressing their anger badly,” Martin said.

“When some people rant, it opens up a Pandora’s box,” said John Suler, a psychology professor at Rider University, who studies human behavior online. He said there is no way to predict whether ranting will even have the temporary emotional relief that ranters say they seek.

“They (could) discover even deeper layers of frustration and hostility. When people rant, it leads to feelings of shame and guilt about being so angry and out of control. For many people, ranting is a dead end. It goes nowhere.”

Choi believes his website can provide a starting point to help people deal with unwieldy emotions. Still, he says he often doubts that site users are taking the next steps to deal with their anger in adaptive ways.

Misunderstandings, confusion and misplaced anger are also common in rants.

“When you are talking about something in a purely written context,” Martin said, “it becomes harder to infer emotions. Sarcasm gets missed.”

Horne describes this recent online dialogue: When he read a rant that poked fun at the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of Cherokee people, and joked about what it called a “secret government order,” he became enraged. He thought the writer of the rant was white and making fun of the deaths of thousands of Native Americans.

Horne wrote to the ranter in a private message:

“According to my family’s oral history, my great-great-great grandmother walked the trail of tears. My father was on the Cherokee rolls, so I know that there’s a good chance it’s true.

The ‘secret government order’ you received was the idea that genocide is funny, and that it’s OK as long as white men do it to somebody else. They probably mixed it in with your Wheaties.”

The ranter’s response surprised Horne:

“I’m Cherokee on my mother’s side, and Blackfoot on my father’s side. Being quick to offend has started more wars than bullets have.”

It wasn’t the first time Horne regretted a rant submission. When ranters mistake sarcasm for genuine belief, flame wars can ignite. The regret comes, Horne said, “two milliseconds after that you press the ‘Send’ key, because sometimes you just know that wasn’t something that you wanted to say.”

“I (have) had posts that I thought were lucid, which others labeled as rants. And I think to myself, ‘Oh dear, did I really say that?’”

Two-thirds of the rant-site users who responded to Martin’s survey said they appreciated when people commented on their rants, indicating that ranters seek an audience, and a response.

Unlike the physical world, where yelling in someone’s face is not likely to yield a positive response, online, people can be rewarded for their expressions of anger — receiving likes, favorites, retweets and comments or responses to their rant.

Suler says rant sites have created an unprecedented culture for anger, frustration and hostilities. “In a way, it does become a spectator sport where people try to compete with each other, while others watch the show.”

More than half of Martin’s survey participants said they read rants as entertainment. That doesn’t surprise Horne. He said he enjoys reading them as amusement, in a “fascination-of-the-abomination kind of way.”

Ranters’ reach increases when they post their angry thoughts on social media rather than discussion forums or rant sites. People can target their rants to their like-minded friends and yell figuratively louder as a group. In December 2013, when cable network A&E cancelled the reality TV show “Duck Dynasty,” — one of the stars made anti-gay comments in a GQ interview — Martin saw one such mob of ranters form.

“I watched with fascination as an angry, online mob gathered their pitchforks and went after A&E, non-Christians, and liberals,” Martin wrote in a post on the science-of-anger blog, “All the Rage.” In this case, Martin observed, the ranters weren’t trying to appease or convert people to their position; they were only interested in finding other people who felt exactly as they did.

Researchers who analyzed millions of posts on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform used in China, discovered that angry posts were shared more widely and more quickly than any other emotion.

“I think that people are responding more quickly to that kind of emotional expression. And so people feel rewarded for that kind of thing,” Martin said.

It’s not that anger isn’t a valuable emotion, he added.

“Emotions are the body’s way of telling us things, of letting us know, in the case of anger, that we have been wronged or that there is a problem.”

The problem, Suler said, is that the ranting is an ineffective and probably negative way to express that anger.

“The expression of anger only has long-term, positive consequences when we understand the roots of the anger,” Suler said. “And when we set out to resolve the conflicts we have with other people, and within ourselves.”