"Any act of writing creates conditions for the author’s possible mortification. There is, I think, a trace of shame in the very enterprise of tweeting, a certain low-level ignominy to asking a question that receives no response, to offering up a witticism that fails to make its way in the world, that never receives the blessing of being retweeted or favorited. The stupidity and triviality of this worsens, rather than alleviates, the shame, adding to the experience a kind of second-order shame: a shame about the shame. My point, I suppose, is that the possibility of embarrassment is ever-present with Twitter—it inheres in the form itself unless you’re the kind of charmed (or cursed) soul for whom embarrassment is never a possibility to begin with.
It’s fascinating and horrifying to observe the spectacles of humiliation generated by social media at seemingly decreasing intervals, to witness the speed and efficiency with which individuals are isolated and subjected to mass paroxysms of ridicule and condemnation. You may remember that moment, way back in the dying days of 2013, when, in the minutes before boarding a flight to South Africa, a P.R. executive named Justine Sacco tweeted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding! I’m white.” In the twelve hours that she spent en route to Cape Town, aloft and offline, she became the unknowing subject of a kind of ruinous flash-fame: her tweet was posted on Gawker and went viral, drawing the anger and derision of thousands of people who knew only two things about her: that she was the author of this twelve-word disaster of misfired irony and that she was the director of corporate communications for the massive media conglomerate I.A.C. There was a barrage of violent misogyny, terrible in its blunt force and grim inevitability. Somebody sourced Sacco’s flight details, at which point the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet started doing a brisk trade on Twitter. Somebody else took it upon himself to interview her father at the airport and post the details to Twitter, for the instruction and delight of the hashtag’s followers. The New York Times covered the story. Sacco touched down in Cape Town oblivious to the various ways, bizarre and very real, in which her life had changed. She was, in the end, swiftly and publicly fired. …
In this mode of trial and punishment, I sometimes think of social media as being like the terrible apparatus at the center of Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony”: a mechanism of corrective torture, harrowing the letters of the transgression into the bodies of the condemned.
The weird randomness of this sudden mutation of person into meme is, in the end, what’s so haunting. This could just as well have happened to anyone—any of the thousands of people who say awful things on Twitter every day. It’s not that Sacco didn’t deserve to be taken to task, to be scorned for the clumsiness and hurtfulness of her joke; it’s that the corrective was so radically comprehensive and obliterating, and administered with such collective righteous giddiness. This is a new form of violence, a symbolic ritual of erasure where the condemned is made to stand for a whole class of person—to be cast, as an effigy of the world’s general awfulness, into a sudden abyss of fame.”
Mark O’Connell, First Thought, Worst Thought