Justine Sacco, Twitter and the End of Irony

Justine Sacco is in the news again. Not that she wants to. She’d like nothing more than to fade from the spotlight. As she recently said in an interview, “Someday you’ll Google me and my LinkedIn will be the first thing that pops up.” But today, over 15 months after she launched the tweet that just won’t go away, she’s still the poster child for career ruination via social media. The recent revival of Justine’s story comes ahead of the release of a new book by Jon Ronson, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.”

Justine SaccoIf you’ve never heard of Justine Sacco, I’ll recap quickly. Just before boarding an 11-hour flight to South Africa, in what can only be called a monumental melt down of discretion, she tweeted this, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” This touched off a social media feeding frenzy looking for Sacco’s blood. The world waited for her to land (#HasJustineLandedYet? became the top trender) and meet her righteous retribution.

Oh, did I mention that Justine was IAC’s Corporate Head of Communications? Yeah, I know. WTF – right?

But the point here is not whether or not Justine Sacco was wrong. I think even she’ll admit that it was a momentarily brain-dead blurb of 64-character stupidity. The point here is whether or not Sacco was a racist, cold-hearted bitch. And to that, the answer is no.  Justine meant the comment to be ironic – a satirical poke at white privilege and comfort. She never intended for it to be taken seriously. And that was where the wheels came off.

A_Modest_Proposal_1729_CoverSatire has been around for a long time. The Greeks and Romans invented it, but it was the British that perfected it. The satirical essay became an art form in the hands of Alexander Pope, John Gay and the greatest of the satirists, Jonathon Swift. Through them, irony became honed to a razor sharp scythe for social change.  Swift’s A Modest Proposal is perhaps the greatest satirical piece ever written. In it, he proposed a solution for the starving beggars of Ireland – they should sell their children, of which there was an abundant supply, to the upper classes as a food source.

Now, did the pamphlet reading public of 1729 England call for Swift’s head? Did they think he was serious when he wrote:

“A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.”

Well, perhaps a few missed the irony, but for the vast majority of Swift’s audience, the pamphlet helped make his reputation, rather than ruin it. There was no “HasSwiftreturnedfromLilliputYet?” trend on Twitter. People got it.

There is no way Sacco’s work should be compared to Swift’s in terms of literary merit, but there are some other fundamental differences we should pay attention too.

First of all, Swift was known as a satirist. Satire was an established literary form in the Age of Enlightenment. The context was in place for the audience. They were able to manage the flip of perspective required to understand the irony. But before December 20, 2013, we had never heard of Justine Sacco. The tweet was stripped of any context. There was nothing to tell us that she wasn’t being serious. Twitter fragments our view of the world into tiny missives that float unconnected and unsupported.  Twitter, by its very nature, forces us to take its messages out of context. This is not the place to hope for a nuanced understanding.

Also, Sacco’s entire tweet totaled 64 characters. Swift’s essay comes in at 3405 words, or 19,373 characters. That’s about 300 times the literary volume of Sacco’s tweet. Swift had ample opportunity to expound on his irony and make sure readers got his point.  Even Swift’s title, at a hefty 169 characters, couldn’t have squeezed into the limits of a tweet.  Tweets beg to be taken at face value, because there’s no room to aim for anything other than that.

And that brings us to the biggest difference here – the death of thoughtfulness. You can’t get irony or satire unless you’re thoughtful. You have to spend some time thinking about what you’ve read. To use Daniel Kahneman’s terminology, you have to use System 2, which specializes in slow thinking. Sacco’s tweet takes about 2 seconds to read, from beginning to end. There is no time for thought there. But there is time for visceral reaction. That’s all System 1, and System 1 doesn’t understand irony.

At the average reading speed of 300 words a minute, you’d have to invest 11.3 minutes to get through Swift’s essay. That’s plenty of time for System 2 to digest what it’s read and to look for meaning beyond face value. You have to read it in a thoughtful manner.  But it’s not only in our reading where we don’t have to be thoughtful. We can also abandon thoughtfulness in our response. We can retweet in a matter of seconds and add our own invectives. This starts a chain reaction of indignation that starts a social media brush fire. Careful consideration is not part of the equation.

Sacco’s sin wasn’t that she was being racist. Her sin was trying to be ironic in a medium that couldn’t support it. By her own admission, she had been experimenting with Twitter to see if edgy tweets got retweeted more often. The answer, as it turned out, was yes, but the experiment damned near killed her. As a communication expert, she should have known better. Justine Sacco painfully discovered that in the split second sound-bite world of social media, thoughtful reading is extinct.  And with it, irony and satire have died as well.

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