2013 may go down as the Year of the Overblown Social Media Scandal. Pax Dickinson, Paul Graham, and many other Silicon Valley types were excoriated in the technology press for remarks about women. Adria Richards’s public tweets observing the oafish behavior of two programmers at a conference resulted in both of the programmers, and later Ms. Richards herself, being fired. Maria Kang upset legions of mom- and fitness-bloggers with an ill-conceived message challenging post-partum moms to get in shape. Most recently, PR exec Justine Sacco’s off-color racial joke led to a 12-hour Twitter storm and her subsequent dismissal.
Here’s the question to ask about these stories: Would you have ever known any of these names if not for the social media firestorm they invited? I’ll go a step further and ask: Would you know them if not for the media coverage of the social media firestorm they invited?
Even within the smaller and often-contentious world of online libertarianism, I had no idea who Julie Borowski was until somebody shared their criticism of her controversial video about women and libertarianism.
Web 2.0 and social media have been heralded by many First Amendment advocates as a force for democratizing the media. Certainly, we’ve seen plenty of that this year—think of the outrage that propelled the Steubenville and Trayvon Martin investigations, or the attention given to Sen. Rand Paul during his 13-hour filibuster questioning the administration’s use of aerial combat drones.
But for all the rhetoric about justice and a free press, social media has a profoundly dark side, too. I suspect it’s been a bigger boon to the culture wars than any campaign strategist could have hoped for a decade ago. It’s driven down the cost of hyperbolic condemnation, encouraging more and more people to join in the bloodlust for whoever made the latest thoughtless remark. Worse yet, social media outrages, once noticed by the conventional press, become recursive. Headlines like “Celebrity X Takes Heat Over Sexist Tweet” only draws more people into a “story” that, more often than not, would never have been newsworthy to more than a small community in the first place.
Understand that I’m not talking about the kind of blind, seething Internet rage that exists in forums and blog comments. I’m talking about the act of automatically retweeting somebody else’s snarky, hyperbolic criticism, even if you don’t feel as strongly about the issue or even agree with the author. In the eyes of a web publisher whose money comes from eyeballs, reading and hate-reading are the exact same thing. Joining the hate parade for somebody whose name you had no reason to know three minutes ago is practically costless, but does more harm than good to the overall quality of online discourse.
Yes, we should want to fight bigotry and ignorance, and we should continue using our old tools—dialog, debate, the marketplace of ideas—to do so. But we, along with our primate brains’ desire for status (likes and retweets), exist in a modern media landscape where a magnifying glass is potentially fixated on each of us. And that magnifying glass can mete out a punishment that far outweighs any crime. Is diminishing the employment prospects of somebody who makes a careless joke the best way to foster debate? Are we asking for a debate, or are we asking for a performance that only looks like a debate? Here’s the more urgent question: do we want to live in a world where the average person’s dumb comment remains at the top of their search results indefinitely?
I know how I would answer that question. I know I’ve been guilty of joining a few social Two-Minute Hates, too. So I’m going to try in 2014 to be a bit more mindful on the social webs. Call it my wish for a new year miracle, but I’m hoping I can convince a few others to join me.
For people in semi-influential positions or with sizable social media followings: You don’t need to convince your followers that you’re “edgy,” “controversial,” or “just telling it like it is.” Tongue-in-cheek bigotry is so over. Retweeting critics so that your fans will attack them for you makes you look weak. Snark is overrated (and bad for you), too. Be brave, be honest, and damn it, be courteous.
For the rest of us: Let’s disengage from the rhetorical bloodbath. Ask ourselves if there’s a better use for our time. Let’s use social media as a force for good and/or kitteh videos, instead of evil and/or feeding the machinery of manufactured controversy. If you can’t say anything nice or constructive, ask yourself why you’re speaking at all. And most of all, let’s think before we retweet.