United in Hate-Reading

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The filter bubble is often discussed in terms of affinity: Online, the theory goes, we congregate around our likes and our passions, whether they are political causes or My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.

But hatred also unites people—and I’m not talking about the loathsome outposts of racists and misogynists. Many people—most of us—cherish at least the occasional hate-read, delighting in something that irks, irritates, and infuriates.

In 2013, after the New York Times examined the hate-read phenomenon, my Slate colleague Katy Waldman captured the psychology behind it:

No doubt some hate-reading comes from a place of bored or dissatisfied loneliness. (Where are my betches? Why aren’t I in Vegas? I despise you, Instagrammed artisanal blueberry-clove cupcake-on-a-doily!) But maybe one’s deep scholarship of detestable crap on the Web is more than just the expression of an inferiority complex. Maybe it is an outlet, a way to access or exorcise extreme passion, sort of like watching a horror movie. The Greek tragedians knew that getting worked up is more than entertaining—it’s cathartic. And the experience of hate-reading is one part pure transport, one part fascination with the intensity of one’s own feelings, and one part something else. This third rail of hate-reading, I think, is what redeems it. At its best, hate-reading highlights something lighthearted and even anti-hateful in us: a playful capacity to be amused by (and thus step back from) our own contempt.

But hate-reading is not just a solo activity. Many an Internet community is built on such shared amusement and contempt. These are not trolls, in that they are not solely trying to provoke outrage, though they may delight in driving someone off—making a blogger “flounce” from the Internet. Rather, they are seeking and developing communities that are, in their own way, affirming.

Perhaps the best example is Television Without Pity, whose motto is “Spare the snark, spoil the networks.” TWOP, which was purchased by NBC Universal’s Bravo Media LLC in 2007, offers a space for people to dissect the shows they hate to love and love to hate. In TWOP forums, viewers compete to find plot holes and, for reality TV, continuity flaws, or evidence of producer machinations; an earnest, as opposed to ironic, defender of a show may find herself mocked by commenter after commenter. Sourness and crankiness are virtues.

Similarly, bloggers who evince strident philosophies or worldviews—especially when it comes to parenting—may find their fan communities invaded by groups of those who wait eagerly for new posts to appear so they can cut them down. Sometimes, the hate-read contingent can bring a blogger down, either because she can’t stand the criticism any longer or because they uncover questionable information about her. (For instance, devoted critics of the mommy blogger MckMama dug into her bankruptcy and created not one, but multiple, forums where they could trade theories and rumors about her.)

When the uninitiated encounter such sites online, they often ask: Don’t you have a life? For many, the answer may well be no; if you are a rumormonger at heart but have no one about whom to gossip, snark communities like these can provide a target, peers, and affirmation that their hobby isn’t bad or unusual.

These hate-read-based communities can offer incisive observations about culture, entertainment, and politics, but the worthwhile material is often buried among vitriolic pointing-and-laughing and cheap shots. Smarter hate-readers give glimpses of being capable of creating commentary that rises above gossip and cruelty, and indeed they may do so elsewhere. But the lack of empathy for the subjects of their criticism—whether a parent blogger or the producers of a show—is notable, and makes me wonder: Are they venting in a way that allows them to be more kind and tolerant in their in-person reactions, or can rather mean-spirited thought processes online seep into “real” lives, thus leaving them more isolated and in need of hate-read communities more than ever?

4 thoughts on “United in Hate-Reading

  1. Hate reading seems like it could be a form of policing a kind of behavior that disrupts gender and class positions. I wonder if they really could bring about social commentary, or if they are really more about punishing those who do not conform. I’m thinking particularly of a place like Get off My Internets, so my evidence is probably skewing my perspective. But it’s always productive to ask the perennial question of rage on the internet, “Why U mad?”, no?

  2. This is such an important aspect of contemporary readership and viewership, and it seems to drive many of my friends’ viewing practices with reality television in particular, as well as the posts on Twitter and other social media, often tagged #SMH. I like your idea of people using this practice as a way to vent, and as a way to form communities around disliking something. I feel resistant to it personally, and I don’t do it, but I’m also excited about thinking more about how hate-reading and hate-watching reflect something that the internet enables in a more pronounced way.

  3. Anouk Lang Anouk Lang

    Great post, Torie. I want to add an additional perspective on the idea of hate-reading from the classroom. Some of the best classes I’ve ever taught have been around books that everyone in the class – me included – did not like. My students would walk in the door bristling with frustration at having been made to read something they considered bad writing, or found incomprehensible, or disagreed with violently, and when class started they would practically leap out of their chairs to start telling me why. (Understand that students in the UK can be quite a bit more taciturn in class discussion than their north American counterparts, so provoking this level of engagement is something of a triumph.) We would have far sparkier, more wide-ranging class discussion in those classes, and I would always enjoy finishing the class by saying to them, “You know, I don’t like this text either” – at which they would look surprised – “but I love teaching it because it gets you all so riled up”. This isn’t the same kind of textual engagement as you’re talking about, but I think there is something of an affinity between the two situations – the idea that we don’t always have to be consuming cultural products that we like in order to use them as a ground for discussion, or social interaction, or even pleasure.

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