Strong opinions, weakly held

Don’t pile on

Originally I was just going to post a link to Jon Ronson’s New York Times piece on the tendency of people on the Internet in general and Twitter in particular to pile on. His piece is mostly about Justine Sacco, who famously posted an offensive (and possibly widely misconstrued) tweet before her 11 hour flight took off, and landed to potentially the most epic pile on in recent memory.

I had lots of thoughts when reading the piece, but one of those thoughts was that Sam Biddle is an irresponsible jerk. In fact, when I was done reading the piece, I wanted to tweet that Sam Biddle is an irresponsible jerk. The truth is that I don’t know whether he’s a jerk or not, and my opinion of him and his work is ill-informed and irrelevant. I didn’t even read the Gawker posts that were referenced in the article, and yet I was eager to pile on Sam Biddle to call him out for piling on Justine Sacco. I’m not sure what impulse that would have satisfied, but it wasn’t a healthy one.

This week, everybody’s piling on Vivek Wadhwa. I can see why, too. I agree with just about everything everybody who’s piling on is saying. I don’t think it’s healthy, though. Stating your principles and defending them is difficult and meaningful. Joining a herd of people piling on the jerk of the day is cheap and easy. Let’s not.

1 Comment

  1. Rafe, it’s a great post, great point, and I’ll riff briefly through a terrible juniper headache …

    After my own brief exposure to such treatment in ’00 [‘Winerlog’], I can tell you that ‘sticks and stones’ doesn’t apply. Words can wield power beyond mere armaments.

    Folks today who oppose what you’ve written, want to not just hurt you online, but destroy you completely, online and offline. Burn a hole in the internet that sparks and catches light in your workplace or home. The punishment doesn’t fit the supposed ‘crime’ – it goes way, way too far.

    Character-assassination is just the start. Opponents want your voice shut down permanently. Everything is seen through the lens of the one ‘incident’. They don’t care about the opportunity to change an opinion, or publicly work through an issue, as we did in the earlier days of weblogging (much more beneficial to society). Your existence is an anomaly; you are ‘other’. All critique is personal, pervasive and permanent. They want you gone. Forever.

    And, nowadays, if they can personal-brand while they do it, all the better! Use your plunging, burning husk as a lever to boost themselves in the metacosm. Vampirically suck your prominence away, use the attention to accelerate their own rise above your blackened ashes.

    I persevered in 2000; I doubt I could today. Twitter didn’t exist then. Folks condemn in social media channels that betray no context. How do you keep your head above water with thousands of accusers? It’s mob rule, a 21st century ‘virtual kangaroo court’. Benefit of the doubt is absent. You’ve been tried, judged in 140 characters (think, for a moment, of how ridiculous that is), and you find yourself arguing against others’ assumptions. Blood-lust is running high. Every follower wants to perform an insta-execution, drive you off the social media, get you fired, destroy your living and then turn to their followers to brag about it. The behavior is pathological. There are precious few opportunities for successful, civil disputation of prejudgment.

    In this kind of environment, the good old-fashioned vendetta becomes a very real risk. I’m betting just about anyone’s Twitter feed could be cherry-picked and turned into a social death-sentence for some specific audience, if publicized in the right channels. Matthew 7:5 is applicable. Or Surat al-Baqara, 44.

    I have to hand it to Anil during the GamerGate dustup of a few months ago on Twitter. There is no better expression of grace under social media pressure than that series of tweets. They were out for blood, and he turned aside every Tweet-thrust. ‘Disarming’, indeed. And yet he brooked no nonsense. Should be in every university’s ‘net curriculum. I doff my hat and kneel in respect.

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