The Electronic Guillotine

As recent events in Brazil and Turkey, and on the Food Channel illustrate, it’s difficult to exaggerate Twitter’s influence. It can destabilize governments and vaporize a Southern, white woman with a successful television cooking show. That is, if the woman allegedly uses the “n” word off screen.

Until a few days ago, Dean was the Southern, sixty-something host of a popular cooking show on The Food Channel. Some combo of her emails, transcripts, and audio-recordings recently surfaced, materials filled with racial epitaphs. Pre-twitter, you would have never heard that story. It would have been buried inside an industry-specific periodical or local paper. Now, thanks in part to Twitter, most everything is national or international.

Pre-twitter, Dean would have been in human resources hot water. She would have been required to attend diversity training workshops and probably been placed on some sort of probation. But given her show’s advertising revenue stream, the suits in charge would not have fired her. However, when the Twitter wave turned large and angry enough, the suits sacrificed her job on the altar of electronic public opinion.

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What happened to Deen on Twitter reminds me of what happened in the public schools I attended in my youth whenever fist fights broke out. All of us went Pavlovian and immediately ran towards them. The mob mentality of our youth is alive and well on Twitter. Now that we’re adults, we’re still running towards fights, we’re just using Twitter applications to do it. The first to arrive on the scene are immediately outraged. Then independent of much meaningful knowledge of the case, Twitter friends and acquaintances figure they’ll be outraged too. You know, solidarity.

Read about another equally illuminating recent example of this phenomenon here. In both of these cases, the perps hurriedly offered heartfelt apologizes, which on Twitter, only fueled the fire of people’s disgust. Whenever an electronic mob gains sufficient momentum a tipping point occurs where the suits decide the potential long-term damage to their brand’s image is greater than the short-term financial rewards of the pre-crisis advertising revenue. At which point, the Deens of the world can prostrate themselves in front of news cameras all they want. They’re dead men and women walking.

The electronic mob forms so quick there’s no due process for the “defendant”. Perception is reality, whether it’s the least bit accurate. No need to try explaining. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

It also squelches reflection and meaningful dialogue about class, race, gender, sexual orientation—diversity in all its forms. We still have a lot to learn about how to live together peacefully. When hateful and hurtful private thoughts or words are made public we should take the time to talk to one another about where the hate comes from, why it’s so hurtful, and what might be done to right the wrong.

With Twitter, we’ve created a swift and lethal executioner. The way we’re using it, we’re robbing ourselves of teachable moments that we desperately need.

One thought on “The Electronic Guillotine

  1. Such is the fleeting status of celebrity.

    But I agree with the view that the new social medium gives an edge to the stone throwers before the comments of rationality get time to be presented and assimilated into the crowd think.

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