How Technology Is Changing Our Conversation

In 2013 a Communications Director named Justine Sacco landed in Cape Town after a flight from New York.

As she switched her phone back on she was met with two messages.

The first was from someone she hadn’t spoken to for years:

“I’m so sorry to see what’s happening.”

The second was from her best friend:

“You need to call me immediately. You’re the No. 1 worldwide trend on Twitter right now.”

Then her notifications went haywire – and her whole life blew up.

Hours earlier, during a stopover in London,  she’d sent a tweet to her 120 followers that had gone viral whilst she was in the air.

It read:

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

Many of us on Twitter at the time remember the incident as we participated in it. We were rapt with excitement at we followed the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet – with tens of thousands of us waiting for the real time sacking of a villainous racist.

Except, as Jon Ronson revealed in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed , Justine wasn’t a villain, and she wasn’t a racist. She’d made a really badly worded joke intending to make fun of her own privilege. It had backfired in the most horrible way possible. She rarely left her house for a year.

I tried to change my social media behaviour the day I finished that book. I tried to resist joining in. Social media shamings are now a daily occurrence, as if we are becoming addicted to the experience of bringing others down.

Last week Sky News presenter Jayne Secker was the subject of her own tweetstorm. During an interview about the housing crisis she made comments about the competence of young tenants and whether they knew how to change a lightbulb.

“Do you think you’ve found amongst your friends, perhaps, that you’re aren’t equipped with the necessary skills to rent?” she asked.

The interview was certainly bizarre and her comments completely irrelevant to the subject at hand – but was the response entirely proportionate?

Haven’t many landlords , social as well as private, asked themselves exactly the same question?

Twitter was unforgiving and brutal, even in the face of an apology.

“I am sure many of us will have made a mistake at work – unfortunate for me mine is a lot more public than most” she tweeted.

In the responses below I saw two tweets from people who follow me. People who I’ve had many positive interactions with.

One of them used the hashtag “#scumbag”. The other just said “sack this c**t”.

We are now truly down the rabbit hole, with shamings leading to sackings leading to shaming and more blaming. It’s as if we can’t adapt to the new power of instantaneous communication, compelled to comment in ways we’d never do in a real life situation.

In her excellent TED talk Carole Cadwalladr rightly calls out the ‘gods of Silicon Valley’ for their failure to control the awesome tools they have given us, but arguably the responsibility is shared with us too. We have to re-calibrate our online behaviour based on values of free speech, but also have empathy and consideration for others.

I’ve just finished listening to The Last Days of August in which Jon Ronson returns to the subject of shaming.

It details the story of August Ames, a porn star, who came under heavy criticism for saying she didn’t want to work with men who have also appeared in gay pornography.

Finding herself engulfed amid accusations of homophobia she posted her last ever tweet the next day – which simply read “f*** y’all.”

A few hours later she was found hanged. She was 23.

In the podcast, and its excellent companion piece, The Butterfly Effect , Ronson charts the effect technological disruption is having on us. Much of it is funny and wonderful, and some of it is sad and deeply troubling.

The most worrying aspect is the effect on our public discourse. 

Conversation is all we have. It’s only through talking with those who disagree with us that we can hope to achieve any form of progress.

However we must also recognise we will make mistakes in our online behaviours. I’m not intelligent all of the time and I doubt you are too. We all have a lot of stupid in us.

We have to be able to criticise bad ideas. But we don’t want to close down those ideas as without the conversation we become more and more entrenched in our views, and that is good for no-one.

Last week I had a bit of a Twitter spat when someone misinterpreted a tweet I sent. I was having a bad day and sent a bit of a snarky response. In real life I’d have probably offered to buy them a pint and talk it out down the pub. However the lack of eyeball contact on social media is where so much can go wrong. We haven’t yet developed a complete set of cues that guide conversation.

This is the first time in human history that we’ve had a space in which we can collaborate with total strangers.

We desperately need to protect that space and that conversation.

That means we need to be lot more tolerant.

We need to try to get our facts straight before commenting.

We need to resist the temptation to join in with public shamings.

Most of all we just need to breathe a little more and be a whole lot nicer to one another.


6 thoughts on “How Technology Is Changing Our Conversation

  1. Totally agree with this, Paul. I googled Jayne Secker and found that she was also the Sky News presenter who I criticised on Twitter a few weeks ago for contrasting Social Housing tenants with “paying customers”. My criticism was based on the false perception that social housing tenants don’t pay for their accommodation and the false picture this kind of view paints about them. I didn’t know the name of the presenter at the time, and I didn’t think it was important, because, after all, it was likely she was either reading from a script, or ad-libbing on a brief she had been given.

    Personalising issues like this lets the organisations and institutions who promote them off the hook. In the unlikely event that the campaign to sack them succeeds they will just be replaced by someone from the same mould. It is the same kind of thing when people call for the sacking of Government Ministers, presumably believing that any replacement, who would be from the same political party, would institute radically different policies.

    As you say, social media has strayed into dangerous territory where people find it easy to pour vitriolic criticism on individuals. It is not individuals who are the issue,

    1. Thanks for commenting John – great point.

      What you did was valid criticism to a bad idea (fact correction) and – more than ever – we need more of that. The comments that were made against her the other day went beyond that and moved over into your wider point of personalisation. The fact she revealed she was a private landlord – and therefore in a fairly privileged position – turned the debate into a far more toxic left vs right bunfight.

      The problem with our use of social media is we paint people as either absolute heroes or absolute villains when in reality most of us are somewhere in the middle!

  2. Thanks for the reminder Paul. I remember we had one or two disagreements in my early twitter days. I try to be more controlled now but I still fail. I sometimes despair at some of the stuff I read.

    1. Difference is Tom our earlier disagreements were fundamentally respectful of each others viewpoints. I can honestly say that your views have influenced my ideas – and that’s the point of these conversations surely. My fear is that reasoned yet respectful debate is becoming more rare. Brexit is a good example of how the personalisation of attacks from both sides have led to increased polarisation resulting in , guess what, nothing moving forward.

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. Great post Paul as usual! I have always taken the view that it is far too easy to fire off a comment on Twitter, without really thinking it through. I really don’t like how people in the twittersphere will at times respond to individual tweets with alot more vitriol than necessary. This is the dark side of Twitter for me and so aptly described by you…….’down the rabbit hole’………

    1. Thanks Brett – I was hoping that the pandemic could provide a kind of tipping point with how we engage online. But the #bekind movement lasted all of 10 minutes! I’m not sure social media will ever course correct but on balance it does more good than bad. At the moment for example despite the fear-mongering and misinformation – it aids collaboration, creates fundraising opportunities, and — perhaps, most importantly — helps quarantined people overcome their isolation.

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