As I’m sure you heard, during the Oscars the humor site The Onion tweeted an extremely unfortunate joke attempt about nine-year-old Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis.
The outcry on Twitter started off merely aghast. Then, as can happen when people collectively find something to be outraged about, the anger cascaded and multiplied. People called The Onion out, called for resignations and firings, called for heads, and often in language as offensive as the language people ostensibly found objectionable.
On a night where my Twitter feed had started with people being complete jerks to Anne Hathaway for no apparent reason, all the negative energy swirling around Twitter suddenly found an even easier target.
I’m not defending The Onion’s tweet by any means. It wasn’t a good joke and they rightly apologized for it.
But it’s kind of amazing to me how the Twitterverse can be correct about something but manage to take its self-righteous outrage so far it somehow starts feeling wrong.
It starts feeling like a witch hunt. In a medium that by its nature is effectively devoid of nuance to start with, whatever balance is possible is completely lost. And good luck to anyone who tries to stand in front of the herd and appeal for reason.
It reminded me of a similar feeling after Hurricane Sandy, when Mayor Bloomberg had decided the marathon should proceed. The Twitteverse reacted with complete and hysterical outrage.
Before the marathon was eventually canceled, the runners themselves were called out for their decision to run, nevermind that many had spent the entire year raising money for charity, some had been volunteering to the relief effort leading up to the race, and whether the marathon would go forward or not was outside of their control.
A lot of people on Twitter had tons of ideas about what the runners should be doing with their time, apparently missing the irony that they were doing so while staring at their screens and not really doing anything to help. And if you lived here and tried to volunteer, you may have been turned away as I was because there were already more volunteers than were needed.
A lot of the vitriol was channeled when the New York Post spotted some generators used to power the marathon press tent while some of the city was still blacked out. In classic Twitter fashion people were outraged about it, while missing the nuance that those generators could not have been used to power anyone’s home or apartment because of technical limitations, and in the end weren’t used at all.
Meanwhile, that same Sunday the New York Giants football game was allowed to proceed in hard-hit New Jersey with nary a complaint on Twitter, despite all of the emergency personnel and food needed for such a huge event. And after the Oscars, I couldn’t help but wish that people felt 1/1000th the amount of outrage about 8,000 people in Haiti dying due to alleged U.N. negligence that they did about one stupid tweet.
I initially scoffed when Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article asserting that the revolution will not be tweeted, but I now wonder if he’s more correct than I gave him credit for. He argued that the weak ties between people in the social media sphere don’t readily lend themselves to actual concrete activism.
I still think Gladwell underestimates social media (it’s basic human communication after all). But it does seem to me like it gives people the illusion of action without being actual action. It doesn’t readily lend itself to compassion for the people the Twitterverse decides has erred.
Woe betide someone who crosses Twitter, but woe betide us if we don’t take a step back from an instantaneous medium devoid of nuance and stop and think. Chances are there’s something out there more important to be outraged about and something far more productive we can do to channel our anger.
Art: The Deluge by Francis Danby