Saturday, December 21, 2013

Would Aristotle re-tweet? Why we love the Justine Sacco story

The offending tweet that went around the world
When Justine Sacco switched off her phone for take-off, she could not know that at the end of her journey a baying mob would be calling for her head.

Not a bad first line for a story.

This is not a blog post about the tweet itself or the offense it caused, I'll leave that to others. It's about why we responded at all. 

There is something of a meta-debate going on these days about what makes a “good story”. It’s inherent in much of the coverage about the many media stories happening. It is never far from the coverage of the News of the World hacking affair, for example. There seem to be endless debates on whether the media should cover certain stories and not others. This is given added vim because it is going on at a time when old forms of media are changing to new ones.

Take the popularity of the "selfie at Mandela’s funeral" story, for example. The author, an AFP photographer, wrote about his dissatisfaction that of all the pictures he has taken, this one caught the imagination of the most people.

Some say a good story should be one that conveys information about weighty subjects, the important public affairs of the day. Others say that that “a good story” is full of salacious detail about celebrity, sex, or other moral quandaries.

I say: A good story is one that simply wants to be told.

Years ago when I worked for a local newspaper we would take interns for a week, usually young people from local sixth-form colleges. Usually their work was pretty dull, but really important. They were charged with transcribing the handwritten letters the paper received every week. Some people moaned about it, but it was essential. The letters page was the heart of the newspaper.

One work experience person who particularly objected to this menial task was older than the rest. He was in his mid-20s and had dreams of being a serious political journalist. One afternoon, as he was typing, he said out loud to no one in particular in the packed office: “I can’t believe you’re going to publish this letter, it’s ridiculous.”

I stopped what I was doing and listened as he read the letter. It was from an 12-year-old girl who was complaining she had really wanted to go and see the a public appearance by the boy band Blazin’ Squad at Brent Cross shopping centre, but had missed it because the (locally notorious) C2 bus had been late.

“You’re right, we’re not going to only publish that as a letter,” I said “You’re going to take it to the editor and suggest that this would make a good story for page three. He’ll give you a camera.”

“But that’s ridiculous, surely?” he said, almost offended. It wasn’t worth his considerable intellect and valuable time; “It’s just a silly story. Isn’t it?”

Whatever he personally thought of the story was irrelevant. Silly or not, what he had done proved it was a good story. He had stopped everyone and diverted them from what they were employed in doing to draw their attention to this particular story. That alone qualified it.

A good story wants to be told.

Would Aristotle re-tweet?
Why did everyone want to share the Justine Sacco story? If we pick it apart we can come up with many reasons why it could have “gone viral”. Is it the new fear that people have of saying something dumb and offensive on Twitter? Is it about race in South Africa? About white privilege in a heterogeneous media space, or about the ease people get offended?  

I think while all these things are important, there is something else. The story has a quality that demands of the reader that they share it. Was it something about the delay in the story’s resolution? We all knew what was going on while the protagonist was blissfully unaware. This dramatic irony triggered our mind's story response. Everyone looking for updates on twitter was seeking catharsis. This quality transcends the medium that the story is being told in. It was as true for pre-historic fireside tales as it is for Twitter sensations.

I can hear you: Surely such a “silly” story can’t be analysed in the same terms as Greek tragedy? What was cathartic about the story of the young girl and her boy band obsession?

But that’s part of my point, however "high" or "low" the story is, it conjures things that work on us in the same way. I couldn’t say for sure what is cathartic about missing Blazin’ Squad, but who wouldn't identify with the young girl who refused to suffer lying down the injustice of her thwarted, 12-year-old, hopes?

A friend said it best. We were talking about the Fenton! YouTube clip. Why did people want to share it? Was it because people could identify with the man chasing after his out of control dog? Or the danger set up and then averted as the deer cross the road? Was it something about the opportunistic nature of the recording?

“No” he said, “There’s something really basic about it… It’s just really, really, really basic.”

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