Great Job, Internet!

What a missing web page tells us about internet outrage

BY Timotheus Vermeulen in Culture Digest | 16 MAR 16

The cultural lowlight of this month is a web page that is no longer available. It used to link to a short video of, as the url suggests, Hollywood elite failing to applaud costume designer Jenny Beavan winning an Academy Award for her work on Mad Max Fury Road (2015). It no longer does. The ‘page has been removed’. This may be the result of a legal conflict with the video’s owner; it may also due to a lack of server space. But there is something telling about the short time-span of this particular web page. It initially contributed to a controversy, or rather, in today’s parlance, OUTRAGE, about the Hollywood elite’s alleged unwillingness to applaud the impressive achievements of this woman.

In the video, Beavan heads toward the stage to receive her Oscar, and, as she walks down the aisle, the men sitting on either side of the aisle glance up and down at her jeans and leather jacket, conspicuously not clapping. Indeed, this url helped set in motion an online economy of disgust, one in which tens, hundreds, I suspect thousands of sites – both serious (such as The Guardian, which is my most trusted news source) and click-bait (Huff Po) – speculated not only about director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s arrogance, or director Tom McCarthy’s ‘beef’ with Beavan, or this or that star’s disdain for the designer’s outfit, and so on, but also extrapolating the instance to be an indication of the misogyny of the Oscars, Hollywood or even the US as a whole.

As it turned out, however, the audience did clap. Many of these stars did cheer. Just not on this video but on another. What happened here, in other words, is that something was ripped out of context – something, to be sure, which in the first instance appears not representative of that context, and in the final evaluation seems unrepresentative of it, after which, based on that something, arguments were put together about the context, arguments that might well wipe out the context entirely (if you don’t believe me, read Jon Ronson’s book about internet shaming, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed [2015], or Slate’s excellent special issue about outrage).

Obviously, this is a problem. Especially if the web pages putting these stories out there cease to exist, abdicating, it seems, responsibility. My point here is not that McCarthy doesn’t have a beef with Beavan and it definitely isn’t that Hollywood isn’t misogynistic beyond belief (or, indeed, racist, or neo-liberal); it is that here, in this specific instance at least, there is certainly not enough evidence to suggest anything of the sort. Pages propagating speculative claims (especially about such serious and sensitive subjects), which are certain to generate financially profitable clicks or monetizable likes at the cost of real lives, only to disappear once the speculation is put to the test, sounds like something of a pyramid scheme to me. But maybe now I am taking things out of context.

Timotheus Vermeulen is professor in Media, Culture and Society at the University of Oslo.