Social Media, Intent, and Unintended Consequences

I watched a video earlier this afternoon that started me thinking about the state of social media. I’ve written about Twitter before: how people will get upset over someone else’s single tweet and how in the long run, does one tweet really matter that much to the point where a social media, and sometimes mainstream media storm is created?

The video I am referring to is by noelplum. You can view it here. It’s 20 minutes long but I believe it’s very much worth everyone’s time to watch. In this video, he discusses the various social media storms that have affected various peoples lives, mostly in a negative way.

What I want to discuss here though is something that I do not believe noelplum covers in depth and that is the intent of either the offender or offended within the specific context.

I want to say that the whole concept of offense over a tweet, video, or blog just seems silly to me. Most of the time, all any of us are doing in whichever medium we happen to use are stating our opinion on some topic we happen to be interested in at the time. Certainly there are people that correct the record in that whomever they are responding to are either ignorant of the facts or are just out-and-out lying. I think we’ve all seen examples of both.

Sometimes though, I believe that when these storms in social media arise, it is, in a lot of cases, a misconstrued interpretation of the original intent of the writer or videographer. The issue is inferring what was meant if it’s not stated clearly, and therefore a simple tweet about nothing much can cause a thousand retweets from hell and a dog pile of enormous proportion. Just ask Richard Dawkins.

Noelplum reminds of of this with several examples we have all witnessed either on social media or the mainstream (possibly both).

The first one I wish to use is the example of Matt Taylor. Yes, that Matt Taylor that made the unforgivable error one day of wearing a shirt to work that offended everyone across the Internet. It didn’t seem that the shirt offended anyone at his work. At least there was no outrage when he first appeared in an interview. Not even the reporter interviewing him made a comment.

On social media however, it became a symbol of sexism and misogyny in science. Lot’s of people, notable and otherwise chimed in to chide not only him, but the science professions in general as being sexist and unwelcoming to women. Because of a shirt. A shirt.

Was Dr. Taylor’s intent when he dressed that morning to intentionally wear that shirt, knowing there were media cameras all around, to show disdain for not only his fellow scientists, but for women in science generally? I don’t think so. And as noelplum rightly pointed out, one of the greatest scientific and engineering achievements of the 21st century was overshadowed by an unintentional choice of wardrobe. Relentlessly dog piled on social media, and of course eventually in the mainstream media. For a shirt. A shirt. Forget the landing a remotely operated spacecraft on an astroid hurtling through space: what about the shirt!

Noelplum also rightly mentions the incident that happened in 2013 at a programming conference where Adria Richards over heard a private conversation between two men that were making what she thought were inappropriate jokes. “big dongle”, and “fork repo” were terms used.

So Ms. Richards got up from her seat and leaned over to tell the men that she considered their jokes demeaning and inappropriate for the venue. Uh, no, that’s not what happened. She surreptitiously took their photograph and sent out a tweet that within a short time became viral and ended up costing one of the men his job. I say surreptitiously because there’s absolutely no evidence that they knew they were being photographed. They weren’t looking in the camera at all. In fact, they were faced toward the stage or platform, or whatever seeming to be listening to whoever was speaking/presenting at the time.

The backlash toward these two, at least on Twitter where I was following the storm, was incredible to witness. All of it over one or two juvenile jokes that weren’t even directed at Ms. Richards or apparently anyone else in the immediate area.

I believe that the two men were absolutely floored when they discovered that someone had been eavesdropping and then tweeted out what they were talking about. Along with their photograph.

Of course, Ms. Richards, as noelplum explains, ended up losing her job as well due to a counter backlash as her employers site was bombarded by a DoS attack.

Later, Ms. Richards tried to explain that she had no idea that there would be the sort of backlash against these two because of their jokes. I found that an incredible statement for her to make. She takes a picture of them, adds the vile commentary, tweets it out to hundreds if not thousands of people in a simple press of the “send” button and had no idea there would be any response like what was seen?

No. I don’t think so. I don’t ascribe her any malicious intent, but her intent was clearly not benign. Why else would she do what she did if not to attempt to make some sort of statement? She also claimed that her intent was not to get someone fired. I believe her when she said that but, had she no idea that when the tweet when viral in such a short time that there was a possibility of a negative result? Or, when she first took the photo and before she sent it wouldn’t that have been the time to consider the possibilities of what she was about to do?

We can call this an example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Ms. Richards performed an act without thinking about the ultimate repercussions of what she was doing. It ended up not only having a negative effect on the two men (one more than the other), but the ultimate unintended consequence of her becoming unemployed as well. Because of a stupid tweet.

Beyond intent for a moment and I believe the overall message, at least what I took from noelplums video was is it necessary to publicly shame and demonize some one or a group of people based on something they said or wrote that the hearer or reader may have misinterpreted? Isn’t it easier and less harmful to all parties to inquire the intent or in Ms. Richard’s case, to simply ask the two men to desist in making what she considered sexist jokes? In the two examples above, because of what I consider thoughtless reaction, reputations were harmed and financial security was jeopardized. Over a shirt and a tweet. Is this really what we’ve become as a society?

Noelplum is also correct to mention in the beginning of his video that incidents like described above are not common occurrences. No one really gives them much thought after a few days after the initial uproar. Of course, most of us haven’t had the privilege of being relentlessy dog piled for several days over some comment we might make, a tweet we may send, or a shirt we happen to wear to work one day. This shaming could happen to any of us, at any time. What’s sad is that today we have to be intensely aware of the possibility of the most minuscule perceived slight taken to the most ridiculous extreme.

I’ve overextended my stay here but I hope to see more blogs and videos that address this topic in the future.


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