January 9, 2016

Giving Up More Than You Realize with Twitter (Part 2)

  —Social media as an instrument of ignominy.

In "Giving Up More Than You Realize with Twitter", I discussed how using Twitter can lead to privacy leaks through location sharing. There are other hazards awaiting those who share carelessly, and depending upon the circumstances those hazards can lead to life altering events.

The think-before-you-Tweet message in "How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life" shows how random comments can create unwanted attention. Regardless of where you land in your evaluation of Sacco's Tweets the circumstances that motivated the New York Times article depict events where multiple lapses of judgement come into play to create and situation where everyone involved lost.

In another case of think-before-you-Tweet, "Why You Should Think Twice Before Shaming Anyone on Social Media" shows how a lapse in judgement can have negative consequences. It's difficult to see how the outcome that motivated the Wired article is justifiable on any level.

The New York Times article links Sacco's situation with public shaming and comments on the effect of public shaming written in 1787 by Benjamin Rush:
“Ignominy is universally acknowledged to be a worse punishment than death,” he wrote. “It would seem strange that ignominy should ever have been adopted as a milder punishment than death, did we not know that the human mind seldom arrives at truth upon any subject till it has first reached the extremity of error.”
We have to make mistakes before we can truly understand the truth of an error.

The Wired article manages to pull out the fine line between shaming and bullying. It points out that the bully is the one punching down and that the power differential can be an important component on how Tweets can be perceived. In fact:
Online shaming is a door that swings only one way: You may have the power to open it, but you don’t have the power to close it. And sometimes what rushes through that door can engulf you too.
The amplifying effect of social media adds a new dimension to online posts. The lack of context and the low cost of retaliation to any real or perceived slight brings incredible power.

For example, on the day I wrote this post, a woman Tweeted a comment about a remark that a random stranger made on her appearance. She has 420 follows. Her Tweet made it to @EverydaySexism who has 193K follows. (@EverydaySexism is referenced in the Wired article.)

I have an interpretation of this Tweet. It's a response to an unappreciated comment by a man. I perceive her response as sarcastic, something I infer from her choice of words. If I accept her comment at face value that's all I get from it. The responses to her tweet are informative in terms of the inferences others were able to make. I may simply lack imagination.

It's unclear what the intent was behind the initial Tweet. Perhaps shaming the anonymous man who commented on her appearance. If so, the response wasn't entirely supportive.  If she felt threatened then it's difficult to conclude that the ensuing online discussion was a victory.

Whatever the intent the parallels between what happened in the Wired and New York Time's articles and this woman's Tweet are similar: a random comment, amplified through social media which garnered substantial attention. The amplification creates a new context for the comment by virtue of who amplifies it.

The loss of control over who picks up a tweet (or any social media)  combined with their social context changes everything. In this case, a Tweet expressing dissatisfaction about a comment on appearance prompts  more negativity on this woman's appearance and personality.  The people making these comments are likely complete strangers.

The lesson, if there is one, is that once you publish something be prepared to loose control over it.

Other points of view.


Martin Fowler's post is offline.
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