At the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, there is a large rectangular room filled with balloons. These balloons are all silver, so much so that they act as mirrors. These mirror balloons float around the room bumping and distorting each others' reflections like an M.C. Escher ball pit.
That room came to mind as I read Jon Ronson on the subway today. His recent Times Magazine piece "How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life” details recent episodes of public shaming on Twitter and the immense toll the crowd's ire can take on its subject. I wondered "Have I shamed anyone? Would I?"
I hope not, but more to the point, why does anyone? Why take time out of your day to register anger and outrage over an anonymous stranger?
Because they're just a mirror balloon.
I can explain using llamas and dresses. On Thursday, a number of events passed through the Twitterdom. The first was a low-speed pursuit televised by helicopter. Two llamas were loose in an Arizona suburb. I made some Twitter jokes and tracked the drama online. I felt a part of a community, watching together on a couch and rooting for them to be wild and free.
The llama chase didn’t distract me from work because I have a particular fascination with llamas or chases. I saw all manner of wild camelid when I lived in South America, even the more photogenic guanacos in the spectacular setting of Torres del Paine. Some llamas loose in Sun City, AZ, a place whose first google result is the very picture of a blandly uniform subdivision, doesn’t hold too much interest on its own for me. It’s the discussion that matters, the fact that I share an experience of comedy or drama with people I care about. We don’t tweet about llamas because we care about llamas. We tweet about llamas because we care about ourselves.
The Dress, an online saga that occurred later that same day, was one I almost missed. I’d had my Twitter fill and returned to work. Then, a text thread I’m on with my roommates and other friends in New York lit up with it. The famous photo was debated and quickly dispatched by a friend iMessaging out a short video he made scrolling the white balance back and forth. It was, unequivocally, black and blue. That Twitter obsession, another deeply irrelevant one, went as far and as wide as it did because people had opinions about it and those opinions defined them in the eyes of others. You were on a team. You were part of a community. You were a face in the crowd.
Twitter is a hall of mirror balloons. Whimsical blips of llamas and dresses float into our ken. We bat at them, twist them around, and examine our own reflection in them. Bopping a balloon around with your friends and staring into their funhouse distortions are little distractions. They’re short-lived entertainment.
The distraction of online outrage, and the shame it produces, comes from the same self-reflected entertainment, but bears immense costs on the subjects, as Ronson’s piece deftly describes.
To extend the Andy Warhol metaphor, imagine Twitter not just as a hall of mirror balloons, but one where playing with the balloon deflates them. We bat the balloons around, squeeze the helium out of them, and they drift to the floor like a crumpled mylar blanket. We need new balloons: bright, shiny, and full of fresh air.
When the llamas are lassoed, there are dresses to debate. When the dress colors are clarified, there are bigots to take down. It doesn’t end. It just moves on to the next thing.
Ironically, Thursday’s Twitter spike about llamas and dresses came the same day as the FCC’s landmark decision on net neutrality. My friend Josh remarked on that irony (on Twitter of course):
The FCC news wasn't entirely ignored. It was the main story on Reddit that day and was a banner headline in every major newspaper. (President Obama even thanked the Reddit community in a handwritten letter for their work on the issue.) Net neutrality is just one of those issues whose importance is notoriously comparable with its ability to put a reader to sleep. John Oliver tried to re-brand it just to fix that, but it remains a lead balloon. No one really has opinions on it that define them from the crowd. There’s just nothing to discuss really.
A subject doesn’t trend on Twitter because it’s important, even to an internet set that’s primed to care about it. Something trends on Twitter when it’s a mirror balloon: when it's fun and light and more a reflection of the talker than an object unto itself. We just have to remember that sometimes those trends are human beings and what distracts us for an afternoon can also destroy lives.