Day 38: The wrong signals

Day 38: The wrong signals

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Years ago, long before social media, I was involved in what was initially a political discussion that turned into a flame war that eventually descended into the trade of personal insults.

“You would never dare say this to me in person,” I quipped. This only invited more abuse.

Even though this transpired in the 90s on a bulletin board, online anonymity wasn’t really a thing yet. We were still using our real names. Sure, we were separated by about 12,000km of water, but we actually knew each other. We worked in the same industry.

Imagine his surprise when, two weeks later, I tapped him on the shoulder at an industry conference. He wasn’t hard to find, but the truth is I wasn’t even looking. We walked past each other completely by accident in a sea of thousands and I recognised his face. You could literally see his face turn as he did the math and figured out what happened. He turned out to be a tiny pipsqueak of a man – not worthy of being taught some manners. Still, it was priceless.

Something like that would probably never happen today, but I often think back on how badly that guy had read the signals. He had no idea of how realistic a threat I posed.

When lions are stalking a herd of gazelle in the African plains, the gazelle nearest to them will often spring straight up into the air, with all four feet off the ground. This behaviour, known as slotting, is believed to be a signal to the lion of just how strong the gazelle’s legs are and, hopefully, a deterrent to committing to a difficult chase. Of course, to succeed as a deterrent, the signal needs to be present and immediate.

I imagine that’s how governments and organisations feel about online activism. Names can be anonymised or faked. Emails and forms can be automated. Bots can make hashtags start trending. They’re easy to dismiss.

Eventually, someone has to get out there and look them square in the eye.


About today’s photo: There’s a world of difference between tapping someone on the shoulder and tapping a button.

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