The very innovations that have made the Internet revolutionary--instant publishing, effortless sharing, vibrant communities of like-minded people that transcend geographic boundaries--have also made the web a place where judgments are swiftly rendered and reinforced, and provocation begets mass damnation. This week, those who write for the web have meditated after confronting its downside.
Earlier in the week, journalist Nir Rosen was swallowed by a tsunami of Internet outrage when he tweeted that people shouldn't sympathize with Lara Logan, the CBS reporter who was sexually assaulted by a Cairo mob, because she was a "war monger." After resigning his fellowship at New York University, Rosen has taken to Salon to apologize for his words and explain what he intended to say. Rosen says that when he composed his tweets he "didn't think the banter between myself and a couple of other guys would amount to anything." But, of course, that's not how Twitter works, which leads Rosen to reflect on the web dynamics that just cost him his job:
It's a bizarre, voyeuristic Internet culture and everybody in the mob is looking to get in on the next fight first, to be at the center of the thing that's happening, even if there's nothing really there. Which might explain the thousands of stupid e-mails and tweets I have received from the mob wanting to get a punch in. But given that I have been condemned for seeming to condone sexual assault, it's surprising how many hundreds (no exaggeration) of people have e-mailed me wishing that I or people close to me will be sexually assaulted ...
There's probably some larger lesson about social media to be drawn here, and how its immediacy can be great in its power to connect us, but also a liability because something blurted out and not meant to be serious acquires a greater power. Then, an offensive joke can be seen as an ideological manifesto, gallows humor can be seen as a serious support for sexual assault. I only wish this had been apparent to me before I hit enter.
Rosen isn't alone in thinking the Internet's quick-draw culture should be reformed. Michelle Goldberg at The Daily Beast marvels at how Rosen, "in a matter of minutes ... went from joking about Lara Logan's assault in Egypt, to digging in and defending himself, to self-justifying semi-apology, to abject regret." While she says the episode demonstrated that Rosen has "deep, unexamined problems with women," she added that "it was also appalling to realize that this brief, ugly outburst was going to eclipse an often-heroic career. The media's modern panopticon has an awful way of reducing us all to the worst thing we've ever done."
Also this week, Los Angeles TV reporter Serene Branson began speaking in gibberish while covering the Grammy awards. At first, the clip was played for laughs as yet another local news blooper. The headlines quickly turned somber when it was reported that Branson may have suffered a stroke, and then yet another cycle of news that she was fine. Today, we now know that it was not a stroke but a complex migraine that caused her to slur her words. Not everything is what it first appears, but the web does not wait.