Michael Hale made a joke.
First he took a picture; riding the subway in New York City he saw Neil DeGrasse Tyson, host of Cosmos and beloved figurehead of Reddit, sitting across from him. He took a picture of Tyson and then captioned it and tweeted it out. This is the tweet:
Some guy using his laptop on the train like a Dumbass nerd lol pic.twitter.com/4RuSAZfI14— im literally 12 (@dogboner) July 29, 2014
Hale, whose Twitter handle is dogboner, is part of the amorphous group known as "Weird Twitter," which is basically a bunch of dudes, many of them from the Something Awful boards, who post jokes and absurdity on Twitter all day. A lot of their jokes and absurdity come in the form of non-sequiters, and a lot of them play with the idea of modern internet stupidity. They sometimes use netspeak ironically, pretend to be dumb, etc. They don't take it seriously, except when they take it really seriously, like when someone steals a tweet or when their social justice hackles get raised. They can quickly turn into a mob of social justice trolls, which is a bore, but when they're being funny - and dogboner is pretty much always funny - they're great.
That's the context, which is something many people on the internet didn't bother to get when they saw Hale's tweet. It got retweeted a lot, and then it got picked up by some Facebook memefarm pages, like the popular I Fucking Love Science page. There, without any context, people saw the tweet and became enraged. How enraged? Like this enraged:
@dogboner you are dumb as fuck. Don't breed. Cunt.— əɔʎɹd uɐuuəɹq (@ap_Rhys) August 7, 2014
The picture quickly racked up 30,000 comments on I Fucking Love Science's page, many of them people simply identifying Tyson - like thousands of people doing it after thousands of other had already done it upthread - while others excoriated dogboner for calling Tyson a dumbass nerd. Some people got the joke. George Takei's social media manager didn't.
I used to believe the internet would make us all smarter. That with so much information at our fingertips, with so many other people there to offer us wisdom and experience, the internet would raise our mass consciousness in a major way. Holy shit was I ever wrong. The internet has just allowed us to become stupider even faster. I see clearly photoshopped photos getting shared as legit all day. There's a cottage industry of sub-Onion 'satire' sites like Daily Currant whose phony content gets shared with earnestness all the time. Hell, there's a site called Literally Unbelievable that documents people believing Onion headlines.
The people who share Daily Currant stories (usually with an incredulous "I can't believe how bad things have become!" comment) are the same as people who got mad at dogboner. The average internet user doesn't think critically, doesn't examine what's in front of their face. They see something and - despite being seemingly tech-savvy and living in a post-Watergate world of cynicism - accept it at face value immediately. And they show no sign of stopping. Look, it's happened to me as well; sometimes you see a thing that just speaks to your own biases and you reflexively share it, or a story just seems too good to fact check (and when I say fact check I mean go to the linked page and make sure the celebrity you're mourning didn't actually die FOUR YEARS AGO). That doesn't excuse the stupidity of it, though.
The quickest look at dogboner's Twitter page would have provided the necessary context of "Oh, this guy is fucking around" for anybody who simply bothered. That would take care of the 'How dare he not recognize fedoralord savior Tyson!" crowd, but there's little that can be done for the "How dare he call fedoralord savior Tyson a dumbass nerd!" crowd. I can't really diagram the joke here for you, but the basic premise of it is that that tweeter is stupid for what he has tweeted. That's the ironic joke. It's not deep but it's good; I follow dogboner and I laughed when I first saw the tweet because it is funny and it is cute. To think that the tweet is somehow actually attacking Tyson requires a profound lack of sense of humor and a very thin skin, because who the hell finds 'dumbass nerd' all that offensive? Tumbl about it.
What I find particularly funny about all of this is that the people who are outraged are defending a science guy because they fucking love science. But they don't, because any scientist worth their salt would have taken a look at the other variables at play here, ie dogboner's Twitter feed. No one who respects science would ever leap directly to outrage. It's part of what frustrates me about the Tyson worship, which usually comes from people who talk about bacon and Firefly too much, and is kind of encapsulated in this post, which goes off the rails at the end with the 'sexy geek' stuff, but the larger point stands - no, you don't fucking love science, you love memes. By the way, I like Tyson, I like what he does, and I don't think he's responsible for the general awfulness of people who worship him on the internet. Let's see if this piece of context heads off complaints in the comments.
There's one last group, the concerned types, who think taking a picture of Neil DeGrasse Tyson on the subway is inherently an uncool thing to do. These people are, frankly, living in a fantasy world. Celebrities ride the subway in New York City, and as a result cell phone pictures of subway-riding celebrities are all over the place. I see a couple a week. These people are public figures, and it goes with the territory. But even more than that, your right to be not photographed evaporates the second you leave your home. You have no right to privacy when you step into the world (which is why I'm always baffled when people blur license plates in pictures - these are literally public identifiers, they aren't social security numbers). That's always been the case, but in a world with cameras everywhere it's more the case than ever. And I know what it's like to be photographed in public without your knowledge - recently I was shown a tweet that had a picture of me waiting in line at Starbucks and was captioned "It's hipster Artie Lange!" It was pretty funny. It made me more paranoid about going to Starbucks all ruffled in the morning, but hey it's public and that's how being in public works. Everybody can see you there.
By the way, I empathize with dogboner on a smaller scale. I have more than once made an ironic tweet that was retweeted and seen by people who didn't have context. There have been many times where people who don't follow me on Twitter have attacked me for a statement they saw retweeted into their timeline which they didn't bother contextualizing; they just hit reply and yelled at me. It's funny until it becomes overwhelming. I've had a couple of tweets go semi-viral - thousands of retweets - and you just start getting the dumbest and most aggressive replies, even to tweets that seem on their face to be obvious jokes (ie, they have a joke structure).
I don't know that this is mob mentality, but it's certainly 'jump to conclusions' mentality. I'm reminded of the story that came out of Comic-Con this year about a cosplayer found bloodied and unconscious; initial reports were that she had been assaulted and left by the side of the road and this caused a lot of uproar. People were freaking out about Comic-Con not having a strong enough anti-harrassment policy and saying this had led to an unsafe situation where this 17 year old cosplayer had been victimized. Then the cops arrested a dude and the internet lined up ready to lynch him. And then just a day later the cops said their investigation showed that the girl had not been assaulted but had been drunk and fallen six feet and hit her head. The dude was still in trouble, but for giving her alcohol, not assaulting her. There are a lot of fingers to point when it comes to who screwed up here - the media must shoulder much of the blame - but the human factor cannot be ignored. People just jumped on a thing without having any context. What was a simple drunken accident briefly became the overwrought center of a thousand Tumblr posts - all of which were making good points about harrassment but all of which were making the good point with the bad example.
Like I said, I used to think the internet was going to make us smarter.