Why don't we take what we say online seriously? (aka, do others take it too seriously...)

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Summary: A man tweeted that he would 'blow up an airport', later described by his attorney as a 'Basil Fawlty' moment, after authorities reacted to what he said. A few years back (decade or more, maybe) one guy had his college career somewhat derailed after posting what was taken to be a suicide note. I personally had a roommate that loved to 'attack by proxy' and then acted surprised when someone complained. Is this a case of people not watching what they write or a case of other just not getting the joke?

Thursday, 03 June 2010

(23:26:15 CDT)

Why don't we take what we say online seriously? (aka, do others take it too seriously...)

It sounds almost like the lead-in to a joke: a man tweets about blowing up an airport and gets in trouble for it. While I will allow that his intention was most likely to never actually blow up an airport, it does beg one good question: how were they to know? You can go to the article and read about it. Does it sound like a joke? Remember when jokes were funny? Of course you do, but that's the word they are using now. His supporters I adopting the hash-tag of #twitterjoketrial to defend him.

Is his way of showing it was not serious simply the fact that it was posted it to Twitter? Should we assume that someone saying, "I'm going to kill you," is obviously a joke if given in such a medium? What if they used caps-lock? Fine. Murderers probably would use a different approach. I read, once, maybe a decade ago, where a college student posted to a message board about committing suicide and they ended up detaining him and forcing him into counseling and buggling up his semester pretty bad. The thing was, he had no intention to do anything like slicing his wrists or killing himself. He was just letting out frustration about where things were going.

In one case, a guy talks about suicide to get some stuff off his chest. In the first, a guy talks about blowing up an airport to let off steam.

In both cases, these mild mannered guys took what they were saying as bits of fluff to let drift in the airy stream of 'Net traffic; and others took it to mean something else. Why not an investigation, you might be asking, and right you are. Why jump to extremes? Online communication often has as context not an immediate conversation but a rough confederacy of peers. A blog about not sheering sheep for chump change might be part of a dialog between a dozen friends-only blogs, like the tip of an crazy iceberg floating in a bohemian sea. I once told my online class that I like the one about menstruation, which was part of another conversation I was having with some other people, and my class got the last sentence of the thing. Should they know what it means? Of course not. Should they assume I have a fetish? That is another tale for a different time.

I'm a big believer in words having consequence, no matter the medium, so I will leave aside defense of those two men. I will also leave beside condemnation of them because, frankly, the Internet blows up on everyone to some degree. Eventually. Identities get stolen. Things get taken out of context. Nude pictures surface. What about the school or authorities? Did they overreact? I think so, but do keep in mind the whole real-life incidents involving planes and airports and threats being meant, as well as the fact that we live in a world where a kid posting about suicide to a message board and the following through might be grounds for a lawsuit if the school does not act upon it. Communication borders upon the instantaneous nowadays, it sometimes catches us off guard that actions may take longer to come about. Not to mention the real life danger of allowing people to post flippantly about things like bombings and brain-pan shootings. It's an accidental "I'm Spartacus" that throws off the histograms and makes tracking actual treats and problems more and more impossible. For instance, this entry is about to use the phrase: "Get help to deal with those troublesome cramps." I apologize to all of those who followed a search about troublesome cramps to this page because you will be denied relief that much longer. See? Consequences.

Think of this in terms of the 15 Seconds from Now future. Let's call the unit (as in: a measurable quantity) of meaning transference a met. A kilomet is a thousand bits of information transferred*. Right now, we are at the cusp where a higher met density is starting to be had via digital systems than through traditional methods. We are in the last years of the old telephone, the handwritten letter. Maybe in the last years of going to political rallies and Tupperware parties. If it hasn't already, the met-density will tip. On a scale of one to a hundred where the higher the number, the more likely it is that the digital stream has more mets than the traditional stream; we have been well into the double digits for some time. Yet, regularly, we do things like post about our bad sexual experience or tag friends to photos of them vomiting. On sites and through protocols that broadcast this everyone (even. our. grandmothers. for. shame.) We are experiencing the tipping point, and we are still trying to pretend like the Internet is mostly a toy, a fad, a fancy.

When airport bomber up there dedicated a met or two to Twitter, he meant "Not that I ever would, but..." When darkNDepressed69 posted about how to cut his wrists, what he meant was "It's like, dude, my parents don't get it but just imagine the look on their face..." Since said mets of information existed on the cusp of real where personal opinions about how real it is differ, the interpretive context applied to them by different parties was vastly different. Schrodinger's Post. A cat that is either an empty threat nor an unfunny joke, depending on when you open the box.

We live in interesting times, that's for sure. We also live in an age where there will be those sly devils who know what I am referring to and use it to their advantage. Like my ex-roommate, who would post about breaking into our room or setting stuff on fire, and then would act agitated if confronted about it. "It's just an online posting!" His case was a particularly annoying one, because he was trying to play both sides of the coin for his own game and did it poorly, but his stance, I think, is one that will be a problem for some time: we are learning a new language but not learning how not to spit on people while speaking it.

Si Vales, Valeo

*: for now, I will hold mets of information to be polymorphic and networked. Any given met requires other mets to exist and so therefore any given met of information precludes the entirety of others, or at least the field in which others exists.

file under Science and Information

Written by Doug Bolden

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