Justine Sacco, Twitter And The End Of Irony

Justine Sacco is in the news again. Not that she wants to be. She’d like nothing more than to fade from the spotlight. 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 came before the release of a new book by Jon Ronson, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.”

If you’ve never heard of  Sacco, I’ll recap quickly. Just before boarding an 11-hour flight to South Africa, in what can only be called a monumental meltdown 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 she was IAC’s corporate head of communications? Yeah, I know. WTF, right?

But the point here is not whether or not 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.  She 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.

Satire 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. And there are other fundamental differences between them. First of all, Swift was known as a satirist at a time when satire was an established literary form. The context was in place for the audience. 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 to anything else.  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  19,373 characters, providing 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 two seconds to read, with  no time for thought, but enough time for a visceral reaction.

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's read and look for meaning beyond face value.

With Twitter, we can also abandon thoughtfulness in our response, retweeting in a matter of seconds and adding our own invectives. This starts a chain reaction of indignation that begins 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 damn near killed her.

As a communication expert, Sacco should have known better. She 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.

1 comment about "Justine Sacco, Twitter And The End Of Irony".
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  1. Kenneth Hittel from Ken Hittel, March 24, 2015 at 12:53 p.m.

    Very well said. The saving grace is that, precisely for the reasons you mention, Twitter forces -- or should force us -- to invoke System 2 well before we retweet or reply or tweet in the first place.

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