And yet not everyone dislikes outrage mobs. At least, the appeal of them is strong enough for them to exist, although I don't precisely know why. I don't like signal boosting trivial complaints – but that's just me.

The only real difference between the two, though, is a profit motive, so far as I can detect. Or the idea that, if you knew some small humiliating trivia, you have some perverse obligation to reveal it. Because modern outrage mobs are all the other parts of blackmail. And when you look at Sarah Jeong and James Gunn, it becomes pretty clear the explicit dollar amount (and not the threat or vengeance for unrelated matters in general) is the only real difference in how these things begin. That's right: people online are acting in bad faith! Inconceivable!

I heard recently the observation that our dislike of blackmail is probably rooted in the sensibility that we not enforce all social norms all the time – that doesn't seem quite right to me. And I think profit motives are a generally good thing, and I don't like seeing it scapegoated. But this might be the moment where I say the morally outrageous thing is the profit motive.

Because asking for money in exchange for secrecy presumes money can make you whole again. That's frequently not true. But in some cases a wrong is bad enough to assign blame, and money can be used to make someone whole – that's called civil litigation. Our system isn't perfect, but it understands the need for it. Blackmail is like the street-vengeance of civil law. It totally sucks because it is only useful in cases where the broader society already thinks the offense isn't substantial enough to impose penalties.

Being outraged on the internet, as strange a waste of time as most internet activities, at least has the respect for societal institutions that the laziest criminal endeavor lacks. I hardly have a nice thing to say about keyboard activists, but I will say this: they shouldn't be used, in comparison with blackmail, to say we aren't serious about building a good society. Internet mobs suck at it, and are destructive, but I do think people sincerely care, on the whole.

And do read the Scott Sumner piece of blackmail linked above, it's a treat and he's worth reading in general.