It had to happen one last time, didn't it -- just to put a final exclamation point on all that had come before. And so it was on Friday that a PR executive with a social media footprint of fewer than 200 Twitter followers fired off an ugly and stupid joke before boarding a flight to South Africa and unwittingly set in motion the destruction of her own life over the next 12 hours. By the time Justine Sacco's flight reached its destination, she had not simply become a cultural pariah but her saga -- the saga she didn't even know she had created and couldn't take part in tempering at 35,000 feet -- was the biggest story on the planet. One admittedly racist-as-hell crack had been spread far beyond the paltry audience for whom it was intended and the whole thing had snowballed into a social media phenomenon that transfixed millions, with a digital mob assembling, creating a narrative, picking apart Sacco's life, demanding blood, and ultimately reveling in the destruction that its supposedly righteous crusade had wrought. With Sacco being completely oblivious to what was happening on the ground below her and left unable to defend herself or issue an apology, her life was shredded. She was out of a job and left with few options but to at least try to go into digital hiding. As one anonymous Twitter-user said, it probably would've been better for her if her plane had just crashed.
I'm certainly not defending or making excuses for what Justine Sacco tweeted out on Friday or any of the lousy comments she'd made leading up it -- comments that were only uncovered once her most recent tweet went viral. This isn't about whether or not Sacco's comment was crude or cruel or just plain wrong. What I want to talk about is the reaction to that comment. The reality is that no matter what you think of what Sacco said to what she stupidly assumed was a small audience, the response to it was completely fucking insane. It was disproportionate to the crime by a hundred-fold. What happened Friday on Twitter and across social media was surreal and unnerving and it should give every one of us at least some small amount of pause. The thing is, unfortunately, that even though we may have finally reached the point where we're starting to realize just how dangerous the organ that amps up indignation and ruthlessly extracts a reckoning is in our society now, we may be well past the point where anyone can do anything about it. Justine Sacco's story was, in some ways, the perfect way to end 2013 -- because 2013 was the year that social media outrage became a white-hot, ever-present reality of life.
For the past couple of years now I've written quite a bit about what I've called the Age of Outrage. The idea was always at once both simple and daunting: that the prevalence of social media and the democratized bullhorn it provides us has created a culture where no one overlooks an offense anymore, not when there exists the machinery for vengeance and for reveling in the come-uppance that can be doled out on a whim. As I've said more than once, the standard offense/outrage cycle has become a fact of life in the age of digital media. And that’s really what it is — a cycle, a mechanism. That’s a problem. Because while it may be completely reasonable for someone to face a certain set of consequences for the things he or she says, it’s gotten to the point where the reaction to hearing something we don’t like has become pretty damn unreasonable. It’s one thing to voice a complaint or to turn off the offending content and go on with our lives, but we don’t do that — not anymore. We spread our outrage like virulent wildfire across social media in the hope that our anger can become the anger of others, so that as many random people as possible can hear our roar and ultimately join in our personal pissy-party pile-on. What’s more, as the number of aggrieved mounts and the noise intensifies, the cost of satisfying us becomes higher. It no longer becomes about wanting to let the person who said or did something we don’t like know that he or she might have been thoughtless or cruel or uninformed — it’s about silencing that person or simply taking away his or her livelihood.
Think about the past year-and-a-half. About the number of times someone has made a dumb comment on Twitter, or said something mildly offensive in public, or posted a picture of themselves doing something obnoxious on Facebook, and the response that's typically followed. Last year it was Daniel Tosh and Jason Biggs. But at the very least they were public figures; maybe it can be argued that despite the fact that they're merely entertainers -- and one of them was speaking in a closed environment -- their comments have some kind of outsized influence in our culture. Lindsey Stone, however, wasn't a public figure, and yet because she posted a picture to her friends and only her friends on Facebook that people outside of that circle managed to get their hands on and be offended by, she was bombarded with death threats and eventually wound up losing her job. Do you even remember Lindsey Stone? You shouldn't, because she was a nobody at the time and she went right back to being a nobody the minute the social media piranhas were full of red meat and could move on to whatever hapless prey next presented itself.
But that was last year. The more dominant Twitter has become as a form of communication -- instantaneous, snappy, allowing for only the most reflexive of responses -- the more vicious and uncontrollable "call-out culture" is. And so 2013 gave us Patton Oswalt being raked over the coals for not commenting publicly on rape jokes;Seth MacFarlane and The Onion becoming instant pariahs for their crude Oscar-night humor; Dr. Phil phrasing a question horribly and opening up the gates of Twitter hell; Paula Deen's vast media empire going up in flames because her comments during taped court testimony went public; even, yes, Phil Robertson's ignorant views about gay and black people drawing fire, all because there now exists the means for even a small number of people to come together and rise up with one voice, no matter their political or cultural beliefs, and assert their will on the masses. Again, this isn't about whether any of these people were deserving of being chastised for their actions -- it's about the mob mentality that can now draw blood on a dime and potentially eviscerate someone with a few keyboard strokes from each person who joins in. It's also about this: When every kind of outrage is turned up to 11 -- and when that outrage is even reveled in -- doesn't it make it harder to appreciate that which is truly offensive and dangerous in our culture?
Case in point, and maybe a much better example of the problem than running down the travails of the well-known and influential, is the story of Alicia Lynch. This past Halloween, Lynch's life was taken apart piece by piece after she posted a photo of herself dressed as a Boston Marathon bombing victim to her handful of Twitter followers. Maybe the costume was insensitive, true, but the reaction was ridiculous, with every idiot on Twitter suddenly deciding that it was his or her responsibility to take umbrage in the name of the entire population of Boston. This was a clear illustration of the problem. There are those among us who believe they’re owed satisfaction at the slightest hint of an offense — even if that offense is only taken on behalf of others — and that see no irony in responding with disproportionately despicable actions to actions they see as despicable. The bullying mob, confident in its moral authority and secure in its numbers and relative anonymity, will not be denied and cannot be stopped. Its wrath is meant not only as punishment for this insult but as a warning to others who might consider one day making a joke it doesn’t approve of, wearing an outfit it doesn’t like, or doing a supposedly hurtful thing that can only be dealt with through hurt administered on a vast and crushing scale.
This is where we are now. Jesus, in 2013 we even delighted at watching the play-by-play as a woman whose only crime was being irritating on a Thanksgiving flight wound up being antagonized by an asshole with a Twitter account -- and the woman wasn't even real. We're enjoying this. We get pleasure out of sitting in judgment of someone like Justine Sacco, as if none of us has ever said or done something shockingly stupid in his or her life and won't again at some point. As if our personal social media branding doesn't occasionally convince us that we can be just as funny as our favorite shock comic or that our true intentions will protect us from the media narrative that can easily be created for us by others. We put aside the possibility that we might some day just as easily be misunderstood or make a terrible mistake in our thinking and simply grab the nearest social media rock and join the crowd in heaving it at whoever we feel has suddenly earned it, this person who's at least not us.
And maybe that person has earned it. Maybe that person hasn't. Once the mob gets going, is it at all possible to tell the difference?
As even Salon admits these days, maybe the tools of quickfire social media outrage really do ensure that the guilty no longer go unpunished for their crimes. But is there a cost for that? And do you really think that this kind of rage, instantly summoned on a grand scale, will somehow become more precise and discriminating in 2014? I wouldn't bet on it.