A few years ago, Justine Sacco, then the senior director of corporate communications at the holding company InterActiveCorp, tweeted about the nuisances of air-travel during a long, multi-leg journey from New York to South Africa. She started with sardonic observations—one about a smelly passenger at JFK Airport, another about London’s peculiar food and predictably inclement weather. Then came this one, shortly before her final flight: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
As she settled in to sleep, she had good reason to expect that that tweet would fade away into the hectic ether of Twitter. She had only 170 followers, after all. But no. While her phone was off, Sacco became the number one worldwide trending topic on Twitter, as tens of thousands of users across the globe filled her feed with their outrage. When she landed in Cape Town, she found herself receiving the full brunt of the online community’s capacity for public shaming. Her public persona destroyed, Sacco was fired from her job and saw much of her social circle—both online and offline—wither away. “I thought there was no way that anyone could possibly think it was literal,” she later told author Jon Ronson for his book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.
This wasn’t the first time caprice was punished with viral outrage. Sacco’s tweet is just one of countless examples of provocative online behavior drawing a seemingly disproportionate social punishment. Why does this keep happening? Because the architecture of social media exploits our sense of right and wrong, reaping profit from the pleasure we feel in expressing righteous outrage. The algorithms that undergird the flow of information on social media are, like the sensationalist print media and incendiary talk radio that came before them, designed to maximize ad revenue by engaging consumers’ attention to the fullest extent possible. Or as novelist John Green puts it, “Twitter is not designed to make you happier or better informed. It’s designed to keep you on Twitter.”
Columbia Law professor Tim Wu, author of The Attention Merchants, calls this “attention harvesting.” And as a business model, it’s extremely lucrative. Many are aware on some level that those persistent, weirdly personal ads on our devices have a lot to do with how Twitter, Facebook, and Google make money. What some may not be aware of, though, is exactly how those platforms manage to hold our attention well enough to make their ads so profitable. [Continue reading…]