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Friday, February 13, 2015

What Shakespeare thought about Twitter

Jon Ronson's piece about Justine Sacco, the woman whose life and career were destroyed by a tweet, is unsettling reading.

She's the PR who posted what was supposed to be a dry joke about AIDS while on a trip to South Africa. She got off the plane at the other end to find she had lost her job, broken her family's heart and was the number one target of a digital lynch mob, none of whom had heard of her a few hours earlier.

In tracing how a little local difficulty turned into an international mob in full cry, Ronson turns up the guy you might call the First Shamer. Sam Biddle ran a technology blog and had 15,000 followers so when he re-tweeted the item and pointed out that Justine was a PR, it was bound to get some traction. But he can't possibly have predicted the catastrophe that befell her.

Key line in the piece for me is "social media is so perfectly designed to manipulate our desire for approval". Justine thought she might be doing that with her first tweet. Sam knew he was doing that by re-posting the item.

It's funny, really. All these modern young media people with their carefully cultivated "take me as you find me" facades and underneath they're all like kids desperately trying to buy their way into the cool corner of the playground by knocking somebody else's cap off. (I went to school a long time ago.)

The language people use on-line to express their approval or disapproval of things people write is full of the language of the playground: they talk of  "take-downs", of "nailing it", of skewering and burning and otherwise having the last word.

What they're really trying to do is make a name for themselves by rubbishing somebody else's.

Shakespeare described that sport this way.

"Who steals my purse steals trash...but he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him but makes me poor indeed".

How many characters is that?