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net.wars: Just Between Ourselves

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 12 November 2010


It is, I'm sure, pure coincidence that a New York revival of Vaclav Havel's wonderfully funny and sad 1965 play The Memorandum was launched while the judge was considering the Paul Chambers "Twitter joke trial" case.

Wendy M Grossman

"Bureaucracy gone mad," they're billing the play, and they're right, but what that slogan omits is that the bureaucracy in question has gone mad because most of its members don't care and the one who does has been shut out of understanding what's going on. A new language, Ptydepe, has been secretly invented and introduced as a power grab by an underling claiming it will improve the efficiency of intra-office communications. The hero only discovers the shift when he receives a memorandum written in the new language and can't get it translated due to carefully designed circular rules. When these are abruptly changed the translated memorandum restores him to his original position.

It is one of the salient characteristics of Ptydepe that it has a different word for every nuance of the characters' natural language – Czech in the original, but of course English in the translation I read. Ptydepe didn't work for the organization in the play because it was too complicated for anyone to learn, but perhaps something like it that removes all doubt about nuance and context would assist older judges in making sense of modern social interactions over services such as Twitter.

Clearly any understanding of how people talk and make casual jokes was completely lacking yesterday when Judge Jacqueline Davies upheld the conviction of Paul Chambers in a Doncaster court.

Chambers' crime, if you blinked and missed those 140 characters, was to post a frustrated message about snowbound Doncaster airport: "Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!" Everyone along the chain of accountability up to the Crown Prosecution Service – the airport duty manager, the airport's security personnel, the Doncaster police – seems to have understood he was venting harmlessly. And yet prosecution proceeded and led, in May, to a conviction that was widely criticized both for its lack of understanding of new media and for its failure to take Chambers' lack of malicious intent into account.

By now, everyone has been thoroughly schooled in the notion that it is unwise to make jokes about bombs, plane crashes, knives, terrorists, or security theater – when you're in an airport hoping to get on a plane. No one thinks any such wartime restraint need apply in a pub or its modern equivalent, the Twitter/Facebook/online forum circle of friends.

I particularly like Heresy Corner's complaint that the judgement makes it illegal to be English.

Anyone familiar with online writing style immediately and correctly reads Chambers' Tweet for what it was: a perhaps ill-conceived expression of frustration among friends that happens to also be readable (and searchable) by the rest of the world. By all accounts, the judge seems to have read it as if it were a deliberately written personal telegram sent to the head of airport security. The kind of expert explanation on offer in this open letter apparently failed to reach her.

The whole thing is a perfect example of the growing danger of our data-mining era: that casual remarks are indelibly stored and can be taken out of context to give an utterly false picture. One of the consequences of the Internet's fundamental characteristic of allowing the like-minded and like-behaved to find each other is that tiny subcultures form all over the place, each with its own set of social norms and community standards.

Of course, niche subcultures have always existed – probably every local pub had its own set of tropes that were well-known to and well-understood by the regulars. But here's the thing they weren't: permanently visible to outsiders. A regular who, for example, chose to routinely indicate his departure for the Gents with the statement, "I'm going out to piss on the church next door" could be well-known in context never to do any such thing. But if all outsiders saw was a ten-second clip of that statement and the others' relaxed reaction that had been posted to YouTube they might legitimately assume that pub was a shocking hotbed of anti-religious slobs. Context is everything.

The good news is that the people on the ground whose job it was to protect the airport read the message, understood it correctly, and did not overreact. The bad news is that when the CPS and courts did not follow their lead it opened up a number of possibilities for the future, all bad. One, as so many have said, is that anyone who now posts anything online while drunk, angry, stupid, or sloppy-fingered is at risk of prosecution – with the consequence of wasting huge amounts of police and judicial time that would be better spent spotting and stopping actual terrorists. The other is that everyone up the chain felt required to cover their ass in case they were wrong.

Chambers still may appeal to the High Court; Stephen Fry is offering to pay his fine (the Yorkshire Post puts his legal bill at £3,000), and there's a fund accepting donations.


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).