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The Internet’s Not Malicious — People Are

Anthony Torres poses for a photograph at his brother's home in Atco, N.J., Monday, Sept. 17, 2018. Torres says he was the rider caught shaving on a New Jersey Transit train in a video that went viral. Torres said he was just trying to clean up after days spent in a homeless shelter. (Matt Rourke/AP)
Anthony Torres poses for a photograph at his brother's home in Atco, N.J., Monday, Sept. 17, 2018. Torres says he was the rider caught shaving on a New Jersey Transit train in a video that went viral. Torres said he was just trying to clean up after days spent in a homeless shelter. (Matt Rourke/AP)
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It was a yuck to some, disgusting to others. A man on a New Jersey Transit train last week sat in his seat shaving, flicking his razor’s cream onto the floor. Another passenger video-recorded the act, posted his handiwork on Twitter, and racked up 2.4 million views, drawing comments about the “slob” and “animal.” Some wits offered faux admiration that the man didn’t slice himself to ribbons as the train shakily lumbered along.

Turns out that Anthony Torres (for that’s his name as a human being, as opposed to a social media exhibit) boarded the 7 p.m. Northeast Corridor ride from Penn Station to Trenton after getting out of a homeless shelter. En route to family in search of a place to stay, he wanted to look “presentable,” he told the Associated Press.

"My life is all screwed up," he said. "I don't want to say that I'm homeless, let everybody know. That's why I was shaving."

“I never thought it would go viral, people making fun of me.”

Anthony Torres

His brother confirmed the screwed-up part, describing how Torres grew up in poverty, made poor financial choices, and wasn’t gifted with good planning sense. The video-recording and online mockery confirm something else:

Technology benefits society and can even be a tool for justice, as with video capturing police brutality, but lightning-fast communication on social media has enabled lightning-fast leaps to judgment in the absence of full facts.

To tweak a line, the internet doesn't invade privacy, people invade privacy.

I’m sure, had I been on that train, I would have done a double-take at Torres’s out-of-bathroom barbering. I probably would have stared. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to sneak a shot of it (Torres said he was unaware he was being recorded) and post it online. In fact, a few viewers on Twitter warned against drawing ill-informed conclusions. Even granting that Torres has made bad decisions in life, under the circumstance, he didn’t deserve this.

Celebrities, while making less sympathetic victims, are all too familiar with heedless stampedes to judgment. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the darling of democratic socialists after her upset victory in a New York congressional primary, took right-wing heat after a magazine interview (print as well as online) photographed her in $3,000 suit-and-stilettos. How dare a tribune of the people parade herself in threads that cost what for some of us is a month or two of mortgage or rent payments!

Of course, the outfit didn’t belong to Ocasio-Cortez. It was a loaner for the magazine shoot. But why pause to do your homework when instant condemnation is such fun? Even if the clothes had belonged to Ocasio-Cortez, as a capitalist, I think it’s a socialist’s own damn business if she wants to splurge now and then. No one has suggested she lives the lavish lifestyle of a plutocrat, and everyday folks are entitled to treat themselves occasionally.

The carping, coming from the starboard side, obviously was politically motivated. And scoring cheap political points predated the internet. But technology transmits images of seemingly hypocritical politicians (whether or not they’re actually being hypocritical) ever faster — and allows ignorant pundits to pounce faster on the 24-hour news cycle.

Incursions on our privacy by some social media users is one reason behind calls for greater online regulation, and that should be on the table. We can’t regulate away human heedlessness, of course, but we should consider that technology can abet that foible, keeping in mind the prophetic warning of the late author Neil Postman.

... the emotional tendencies Twitter disregards, in the haste it encourages from users, are empathy and understanding.

Two decades ago, Postman gave a talk on “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change.” His third principle held that “every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds … in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards.”

I’ve long been uncomfortable with the philosophy of Twitter, on which Torres was crucified. Its animating premise is that meaningful communication can be had in 280 characters. (Originally, it was half that, but even Twitter found that constricting.) I don’t deny that it is a useful medium for concise thoughts and passing along links. But it’s no coincidence that our impulsive commander-in-chief makes it his public relations weapon of choice.

Per Postman, the emotional tendencies Twitter disregards, in the haste it encourages from users, are empathy and understanding. Which makes Anthony Torres’s lament about his Twitter stardom all the more poignant for its hopelessness: “I never thought it would go viral, people making fun of me.”

Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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