This week, we started our L&Team chat with a plan: after reading a BBC article regarding social media response to last week’s EgyptAir hijacking, we wanted to see what the team thought about the internet’s handling of this thankfully un-tragic event.

For context, the EgyptAir flight, with 63 passengers on board, was originally thought to be under terrorist threat. That is, until the alleged “terrorist,” who maintained to be wearing a suicide belt, made it painfully obvious that he was not at all interested in terrorism, but very interested in contacting his ex-wife. Under the hashtag #EgyptAir, Twitter users shared a variety of less than serious responses, some while the hijacking was still underway:

L&Team were quick to start the discussion on “appropriate” and “inappropriate” humor, with Cooper, our CEO, observing that “our generation has an interesting take on ‘snark.’” To that end, our creative director Ryan pointed out that there is a key difference between “saying things because it’s ironic, and saying things because you mean it,” which is, essentially, the difference between a “funny” and an “unfunny” joke. While content’s meaning has always been somewhat contingent on the audience’s reception of it, social media seems to highlight the extent to which meaning depends on its readers.

Travelling down this tangent, the team was soon in heated debate over the line in the sand that makes a joke funny or offensive. Oliver, our executive assistant, raised the point that today’s society has become too “politically correct,” and that the threat of internet disapproval encourages self-censorship. And Cooper was quick to add that “the idea of satire is important” and “to merely mouth the words of someone insensitive is not ok, you need subtext.” Our content manager Michael pointed out that perhaps a joke could be “funny” and “unfunny” at the same time, as one might find a snarky or sarcastic remark to be funny, but “dumb people might think you’re for real.”

This discussion highlights an interesting conundrum. If you utter an “insensitive” joke in person, it should be clear in your tone that you meant it in a sarcastic way or the company whom you address will understand that sarcasm because they know your personality outside the context of that joke. The success of a joke uttered IRL is thus dependent on a trove of nonverbal cues– cues that social media axiomatically lacks.

While contemporary culture does hyperbole quite well, we also display a penchant for nuance: could microaggressions exist without noticing seemingly minor acts? Still, implicit or suggested context gives meaning to the statements, which helps direct how the statement is meant to be read. In a 140-character tweet (even less if you’re commenting on or otherwise including a photo), where does the context fit? Furthermore, when something goes viral, the personality and viewpoints of the author become flattened into whatever information could be squeezed into his or her bio. With public figures, there’s the added expectation that every tweet not only matches up with their public personality, but also falls in line with the ethos of their cause.

Victims of the self-righteous internet flame mob exemplify how judgement of character based solely on a tweet and a two-line bio can bring devastating real-life consequences including stalking, death threats, and the harassment of friends and family by internet strangers. Cooper described this phenomenon as the “chilling effect of social media,” while Michael was quick to point out that “it’s called virality for a reason, it’s not called well considered and tested popularity through time.”

Here, interestingly, the conflict comes when we consider how social media serves as a litmus test for our culture. We expect social media to be simultaneously spontaneous, unmediated windows into our lives without venturing into territory that is ethically ambiguous, the distinction of which is drawn with ever-shifting boundaries. Shayna, our social media manager, added that “we use humor to cope with terrible things” and that these comments are rarely meant with malicious intent. Perhaps one person’s knee-jerk coping mechanism could easily be misinterpreted as callous and insensitive by others and neither is necessarily wrong. But is a one-off insensitive remark deserving of the internet flogging that some viral “unfunny” jokes have resulted in?

The team also passionately gave their two cents on the topic of internet shaming, which is not to suggest that everyone was on the same side of the issue. Brett, one of our staff writers, claimed that any internet poster “knows what they’re getting into” when they share something online, and therefore are deserving of any negative reactions they might receive from their internet audience. Michael disagreed, asserting that “public shaming is never a good thing, it just makes us [the righteous internet mob] feel good.” He then went on to compare Brett’s statement to “victim blaming” in cases of rape or sexual harassment, saying it’s “the same thing as telling a girl her dress was too tight and she was asking for it… she should have seen it coming.”

While Brett was quick to retort that he did not equate rape to internet flaming and that it’s problematic to treat them as one in the same, Michael had raised an interesting point: is internet shaming ethical, and is it right to deny victims of internet shaming the same sympathy and expectation of privacy that we extend to victims in other scenarios? What is the line between funny and unfunny and appropriate and inappropriate in the blurry context of social media? Do real-life people deserve real-life repercussions as a result of their behavior in the virtual world?

As the minutes of our lunch meeting ticked down, we prepared to go back to work. We didn’t reach a consensus, except to acknowledge this issue’s immense complexity. Perhaps empathy is the quick, but not so easy answer to both the victims’ and the aggressors’ quandaries. Still, we beg the question: why can’t we all just get along?

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