Sunday, November 14, 2010

The nonsensical death of irony - Twitter and Context

This week has been a fairly extraordinary one for a handful of Twitter users:

  • Paul Chambers lost his twitter joke trial appeal, leading to an "I am Spartacus" tweet frenzy repeating his original joke by thousands.
  • Tory councillor Gareth Compton has been arrested after an "ll-conceived attempt at humour", asking if someone could stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. The remark was a joke following, I understand, Yasmin's public comments on cultural subjectivity - although this context isn't given in the BBC article.
  • Civil servant Sarah Baskerville has been picked up by the Daily Mail and then, Crabbe-and-Goyle style, by the Independent, for her tweets describing being drunk, and her views on government policy, training courses, etc. In other words, anything anyone normal ever has said. The sloppiness of the "journalism" involved here isn't worth linking to, but Paul Clarke's words in defence most certainly are.

There's a running thread here, and a very dangerous one. This is not the "out of context" trap that modern, easy-to-cut-and-paste communication falls into, but rather the prescription of context. That is, it is not dangerous per se to take something out of context, but it is harming to ascribe your own context to someone else's words - and, therefore, their identity.

Doing so has two effects. Firstly, obviously, it creates distress for the original author. Being taken out of context is not just depressing - because anything we produce always comes from a particular context, and formally explaining that context is difficult - it is also hard work and defeatist. By realising that other your work can be placed into another context - any context - producing something that works in all of them is downright hard.

Secondly, it also creates extra work for those looking to ascribe the context. All of the above examples generate a lot of effort, to arrest someone, to prove their "guilt", and for others to defend them. Sometimes this is necessary, but here we're seeing a blanket "something must be done" approach. Reputation is everything, but it can also quickly become the rope to hang an institution that blindly ascribes its own context to all private/semi-public communication. The "I am Spartacus" meme keenly exploits this (but at the same time becomes ironically self-defeating by needing the hashtag to spread).

We will see more of this as two factors come together. Firstly, as the world becomes increasingly about representation and reputation - PR, branding, marketing, etc. In a virtual world, this can only gather speed as the rate of change means that social symbols are the best way of judging anything. To be seen to be doing something is essential, and to be seen to be following one's own "principles" is the best way of reinforcing this reputation, even when the implementation is obviously flawed.

Secondly, as fear pries more and more into "private" communication. Adding "personal view" disclaimers, it seems, is futile. Addressing your communication to a particular person (an obvious context-setter) is futile. Even sending a private message (a Twitter Direct Message came to light in Paul Chambers' case) doesn't seem to separate out contexts. With increasing surveillance of private communications, the scope to ascribe one context to any other becomes more and more total.

If the trend isn't reversed, any conversation critical of those doing the monitoring will be driven out, or underground. Private contexts will become meaningless, as one-way surveillance dictates that all communication - no, all extracts of communication - should be understood as "serious" by one set of contextless rules. Very quickly, all forms of satire, parody, irony and obvious lying become illegal. Jokes must only be told face-to-face, behind closed doors.

Sounds like a laugh.

Update: Louise Kidney's post on the same matters is worth reading too.

Update 2: Also an excellent piece by Mike Butcher.

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