The New Pillory

  Pillory by OLOliuqui on flickr

Let’s get this out of the way: Justine Sacco said some loathsome things.

And twitter lit her up for it. Lots of well-to-do, highly connected twitterers and the rest of the mob jumped on her. They began throwing refuse and beating this woman who was locked up in the public square. A righteous mob abusing the person who stepped outside the social norms. It’s a pillory.

This is the economics of twitter. Create value for your followers, get more followers, and indirectly make internet money. Twitter rewards you for becoming the leader of that righteous mob. You get the retweets you’re craving. It doesn’t differentiate on the target of your abuse. If you aim the abuse at the powerful, some politician perhaps, you get the same economic benefit as aiming at some middle class person who was a moron. And let’s face it, it’s easier to jump on people the lower class they are. Some football player or politician has a PR corp to help them and the money to weather out any storm. No matter what loathsome thing they’ve been caught doing, they’ll bounce back. But you can destroy the life of that unconnected person. You can feel that satisfaction as you break their jaw as they’re hands and feet are locked in place by the pillory. So, middle class people are a better target for your righteous rage. You can actually hurt them.

This is also why I don’t watch the works of Sacha Baron Cohen. This is a rich man who makes his money holding up the poor and marginal people to ridicule. Let’s face it, it’s easy to laugh at homophobes, Kazakhstan, and rednecks. Directing ridicule at the powerful is liable to lose you profit.

If you’re a super connected person like Xeni, you have a responsibility to think about the person you’re pillorying and not just bathe in the adoration of mob for taking someone’s teeth out.

It’s time to think hard about social media.  Michelle Goldberg of the nation writes:

We’ve built ourselves a panopticon in which any one of us can be singled out for minor transgressions and transformed into a meme for jeering global flagellation. Almost any of us could be vulnerable to a crowd-sourced inquisition.

(You gotta love a writter who can get “panopticon”, “transgressions”, “jeering”, and “flagellation” in one sentence.) It's concerning when the level of enforcement of orthodoxy becomes so powerful at attacking private individuals. I’ve seen this sort of thing for economic and policy arguments. I was recently called an “extremist” on facebook for challenging someone who said that raising the minimum wage doesn’t reduce employment. This persons self righteousness wouldn’t allow him to have a rational conversation about an effect predicted by the very basics of economic understanding. I was just an “extremist”. This is a variation of what feminists refer to as “othering.” It’s defining the us and the them, and demonizing the them. And that’s the dark side of the internet and social media. You can find your tribe, but too often people spend their energy targeting the “other” for abuse. And it’s very easy to join the mob when it’s made up of your tribe, made up of “us.”  Just think of that guy on facebook that always posts about "Republicans" or "Liberals."

I’m glad I didn’t try to have that conversation on Twitter or I might have had a reporter track my parents down to criticize me–which happend to Justine.

For every person and brand who tried to profit from criticizing Justine, shame on you. And if you haven’t read about the brands–especially GoGo–joining in, you should start here.