In Dave Eggers’s 2013 novel The Circle, an all-powerful Google-Twitter-Facebook-Meerkat-like conglomerate challenges a billion of its devoted users to crowd-source the capture of a fugitive child-killer, in twenty real-time minutes. From photos, the perp is quickly identified—without independent verification—as an old woman in Leeds, England.
“Are we sure we want to find this hag?” the most-liked online comment snarks. “She looks like the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz.” Locals track her down at her job at a laundry, and as the whole world watches live, the woman, her face “at once terrified and defiant,” is “trapped against a wall, surrounded by a dozen people, most of them holding their phones to her, aiming them at her. There was no possibility of escape.” She collapses and is hauled off by the police. The Circle found her with nine minutes and thirty-four seconds to spare.
Jump to real life and the circle remains unbroken.
The same year Eggers’s novel was published, a publicist named Justine Sacco sent out a clumsy tweet while on a flight to South Africa: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Then, as Jon Ronson recounted to Jon Stewart last week to promote his new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, all hell broke loose. While Sacco was still in flight, a global cyber-mob started passing her “disgusting racist tweet” (as one tweeter called it) around as an example of unacceptable speech. Soon, Ronson writes in a book excerpt, a tweet came in
from her employer, IAC, the corporate owner of The Daily Beast, OKCupid and Vimeo: “This is an outrageous, offensive comment. Employee in question currently unreachable on an intl flight.”
And that brought out a kind of instantaneous circling, tying the Internet’s capacity for snap judgment to a digital witch hunt:
The anger soon turned to excitement: “All I want for Christmas is to see @JustineSacco’s face when her plane lands and she checks her inbox/voicemail” and “Oh man, @JustineSacco is going to have the most painful phone-turning-on moment ever when her plane lands” and “We are about to watch this @JustineSacco bitch get fired. In REAL time. Before she even KNOWS she’s getting fired.”
A new hashtag began to trend worldwide, and someone tweeted, “is there no one in Cape Town going to the airport to tweet her arrival? Come on, Twitter! I’d like pictures #HasJustineLandedYet.”
A local user obliged, posting her photo online and writing, “Yup. @JustineSacco HAS in fact landed at Cape Town International. She’s decided to wear sunnies as a disguise.”