It’s almost de rigueur at this point. Somebody pisses off a group of people who reach for their keyboards and let slip the doggerel of wrath in the form of assault by Twitter. This holiday weekend, the target of death threats was Alabama football kicker Cade Foster and family, following his poor performance in the Iron Bowl against Auburn. Foster wasn’t even the kicker who missed the final 57-yard field goal attempt, impressively caught and run back 109 yards for a game winning touchdown by Auburn’s Chris Davis. According to reports, it was Foster’s three missed attempts earlier in the game that predicated tweets instructing Foster to die, kill himself, hoping his mother gets raped, etc. By Sunday, however, I think it’s fair to say the “system” worked as fellow team members, fans, and just users in general rallied in a show of support for Foster that more than outweighed the attacks and seems to have quickly silenced the reactionary authors of the nasty tweets.
It’s easy to ask the question as to whether or not social media like Twitter helps bring out people’s worst natures, and I have certainly criticized this kind of behavior in the past; but the trend itself begs the question whether or not it has any socially redeeming value. In this episode of the Freakonomics podcast, Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt propose the idea that “virtual mayhem might reduce actual mayhem” by giving particularly young men 1) something to do; and 2) a means to vent their latent rage. Specifically, the Freakonomics partners are talking about video games, suggesting that if adolescent and 20-something males are occupied with anything (like babies with busy-boxes) they simply don’t have as much time or incentive to get into trouble. Turning to the topic of online behavior, however, Dubner proposes the same net social gain that real violence might be diminished by letting people rant even violently online. Levitt counters, though, that online rants can be as hurtful as some physical violence (in fact they have led to physical violence) and he suggests that in virtual space these behaviors usually persist and consume real discourse in contrast to a heckler in a live audience who is more likely to be told to sit down.
I’m glad to see that in the case of Cade Foster, the audience seems to have told the hecklers to sit down.
© 2013, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.