You don’t have to look too hard to find anger on the internet. Whether through weblogs, social networking websites, or online discussion forums, people use the Internet to express their anger on a variety of topics. Online news sources routinely allow for public comments, often providing a venue for reader anger. Likewise, there are entire websites, called rant-sites, dedicated to allowing people to vent online and a series of studies I and three other authors presented at the 2011 Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association Annual Convention explored the use of these websites, including what people get out of expressing their anger in such a way.
Rant-sites are exactly what they sound like. They are websites designed for people to rant or vent about any topic they choose. For an example of one of the most popular rant-sites, go to www.justrage.com. Be warned, however, that such websites are not for the faint of heart. Much of what you read there is offensive and some of it seems to qualify as hate-speech. Though Just Rage has a policy against racism and hate speech, that policy doesn’t appear to be well enforced.
The project we presented included two studies exploring different facets of rant-site use. We decided to start this line of research because so little is known about how anger is expressed online and what writers seem to get out of it. We choose rant-sites because we thought that what happens on these websites is part of a bigger problem that is happening on social networking websites, discussion forums, etc. Our hope was to better understand why people express their anger online the way they do and what they perceive as the value of such expressions.
The first thing we did was to look simply at the content of the rants on several of these websites. We found that, more often than not, rants are directed at a specific person, usually a spouse or romantic partner. When not a particular person, rants were almost always directed at a large subgroup like a religious group or a political party. By far, the most common reason for the rant was some sort of pet peeve or daily irritation (e.g., people who complain, spouse being late all the time, having to install toolbars on their web browser when they download computer software).
The second study surveyed users of such websites to learn more about how/why they use the website along with how they experience and express anger in general. What we found was that every participant responded by indicating that they usually feel calm, relieved, or relaxed after writing their rants. This finding alone is a bit surprising as catharsis, the act of venting or “letting it out”, is well known to have unhealthy long-term consequences. The reports of decreased anger, then, could likely indicate that they are feeling angrier as they write the rant and that anger decreases when they are done. They interpret that decrease as feeling relaxed and don’t recognize the increase in anger they experienced while writing.
Another interesting finding here is the sense of community that seems to develop on some of these websites. Most participants were hoping for some sort of interaction through comments on their rants. They reported wanting people to validate their feelings, make them laugh, or even to disagree with them. In some ways, you could think of these websites as anonymous social networking sites where people know each other by their usernames (though, they don’t all have user names).
One of the more striking findings is that visitors of rant-sites are a fairly angry bunch in general with approximately 60% of them scoring above the 75 percentile on a measure of anger. Likewise, approximately 10% of them reported having had a physical fight in the last month and almost all of them reporting a having a verbal fight in the last month.
Unfortunately, there is still a lot that we don’t know about online anger. Frankly, the big problem with this line of research is that it’s very hard to find participants. We tried to attract them with the possibility of winning a drawing for a gift card. Though we had enough participants to do some basic analyses, it was very hard to attract people who were interested in participating. They are posting anonymously for a reason and are not interested in providing too much information. We had a similar problem when conducting another study on news discussion forums. Participants just don’t want to provide much information about themselves and, until we solve that problem, we aren’t going to know much about this type of anger expression.
By Ryan C. Martin
Special thanks to my three co-authors for this presentation: Kelsey Ryan Coyier, Leah M. Van Sistine, and Kelly L. Schroeder