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Bramble On: Shut the tweet up

Isaac Brambila
Bramble On

The headline said it all. “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life.” But wen I saw the tweet in the New York Times Magazine article, I didn’t think much about it.

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” she tweeted as she waited in an airport before she visited family in South Africa.

“Just another idiot spraying garbage on the Internet,” I thought. But it wasn’t. It was a seemingly smart, educated young woman with a successful career.

In many ways Sacco presented everything I loathe about modern communications technologies in fewer than 140 characters. It exemplified the Internet’s wonderful ability to make the intellectually capable look like the rest of the “lol” generation – a lazily-thinking hyperactive cyber-mass to whom language has lost its value. In my head I could almost hear the stereotypical clueless-white-girl-from-The-Valley voice as I read the tweet.

The tweet had it all. It showed the need many have to instantly publish every stupid thought that comes to mind, the easy access and lack of a reflection period in social media posts, the immediate connection with hundreds or thousands of people within an app and how that can be magnified if someone with thousands more followers – like in Sacco’s case –re-tweets what you posted. It illustrates the idea that everyone, no matter how ignorant, clueless or downright idiotic, has the opportunity to publish their thoughts and ideas to massive crowds, and how easily that can backfire. There is no gatekeeper, no editor. It’s a self-regulated cyber-world where misinformation thrives and where the punishment for meaningless comments most of the time doesn’t fit the crime. It’s a filterless stream of collective consciousness where brilliance exists buried under the overflowing posts of the mundane and misinformed.

In addition to the shortsightedness in the nature of social media, is the technologies’ own shortcomings. After all, how much value can we place in a 140-character opinion or comment.

“Only an insane person would think that white people don’t get AIDS,” Sacco told New York Times Magazine.

“To me it was so insane of a comment for anyone to make,” she said. “I thought there was no way that anyone could possibly think it was literal.”

“To put it simply, I wasn’t trying to raise awareness of AIDS or piss off the world or ruin my life. Living in America puts us in a bit of a bubble when it comes to what is going on in the third-world. I was making fun of that bubble.”

Within those 140 characters, a comment is stripped of tone, context and a targeted audience. Any satirical value or sarcastic tone is easily dissolved. The comment is there for everyone to see, which means it is there for everyone to criticize it at face value. Sacco found that out the hard way.

By the time the cyber torches were lit and the comment mob started to close in, it didn’t really matter what Sacco meant by her tweet. By that time the Internet’s savagery was deaf and blind. The cyber world is quick to attack and oblivious when it comes to reflection. It’s easy to be cruel in the safety of the mob and with the protection of virtual anonymity. It’s also easy to comment on something you know close to nothing about when there are no consequences. After all, it was only 12 words stripped of context and tone.

As a publicist, Sacco should have known better. Perhaps if she had thought about it a little longer, she wouldn’t have posted the comment. But Sacco’s tweet almost instantly became the No. 1 trending topic on twitter. She was ridiculed and humiliated by millions of people. She was threatened and attacked. She lost her job and saw her career crumble under the weight of 140 characters. It was a savage punishment for something she tweeted while she killed time between flights.

The Internet is a great communications tool. Twitter itself is my best source for national and international news – with a carefully cultivated newsfeed. The Internet is a great platform for debate, but there are also very flawed platforms within the Internet. After all, what value does a debate have when few people know what they are talking about and the commenters are not held responsible for their words? How useful can the criticism of a 140-character comment be?

I don’t have an expectation of change any time soon. I don’t imagine out-of-place opinions, photos of people’s dinners and the press-stopping news of someone going on their break at work to stop showing up on my Facebook feed – I’ve managed to weed those people out of my Twitter feed. But for now, I’ll stick to my minimal interaction in social media and to simply rolling my eyes when I see the next Sacco-esc comment on my feed. Nobody ever became famous because of a single tweet. The same can’t be said about infamous tweets.

Isaac Brambila is a reporter for the Tahoe Daily Tribune. He can be reached at ibrambila@tahoedailytribune.com or 530-542-8002.


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