Let’s imagine this scenario.
A man does something that inconveniences some other people, but these people are not so inconvenienced as to ask the man if he could be more accommodating.
Not exactly headline news, is it?
I mean, you’ve probably had similar experiences in the past week. Probably more than you can count on your hands. Maybe you’ve even asked someone if they could accommodate you. For instance, this happens all the time on trains: people get on when it’s quiet and plonk their bag on the seat next to them, and then when the train is busier someone will ask if they can move the bag and sit down. It’s mostly all very civil, and a perfectly natural pattern of behaviour.
But what if it was headline news?
Thankfully, we needn’t wonder. Because it is.
Let’s say I wanted to sit on a seat on a train, but someone’s skateboard was there. And then let’s say that instead of politely asking the passenger sitting next to it to move their skateboard I stayed standing for my journey.
A bit odd, you might think.
Then let’s say I took a photo of the skateboard and posted it on social media, saying “look at this selfish skateboarder taking up two seats when people are standing!”
You might think this was more than a bit odd; you’d probably think I was being a bit of a tit.
But, actually, what I’d be doing is lighting a spark inside a piece of social machinery that exists to create a spiralling effect.
By reacting in this way, I would have neatly illustrated something.
Not that skateboards are unusual, because that’s not really a reason to do anything other than ask the passenger to move it. (Sure, if it’s an object that really influences whether you want to sit there—like a filthy and aggressive-looking dog or a sawn-off shotgun—then yes, that’s the issue at hand, but a skateboard is just a skateboard.)
What I’d have really illustrated is that skateboarders are people whom I consider somewhat, shall we say, different. Rather than approach the situation in the same way as I would have had the person been someone in a suit who’d left a briefcase on the seat, I refrained, and chose to broadcast the image on social media.
Posting this image is an indication that it’s notable: it’s not as if I post pictures of people taking up extra seats by putting briefcases on them, because that’s normal and people who carry briefcases are normal.
The next part of the process is the fuel, the real source of energy, in the social engineering machine.
My image is picked up by the media. Why? Superficially, because they know that many people identify with me: they too think that skateboarders are unusual.
Not only that, but far more people identify with my attitude than identify with skateboarders, and images like this influence them as much as they feed people who actively dislike skateboarders.
This of course prompts the question of why the media would devote resources to reproducing such an image.
But the media has a decision to make. My photo shows the face of The Skateboarder. Should the image be blurred to obscure his identity?
The media decides to blur it.
Let’s consider why that is.
The removal of The Skateboarder’s identity is a conscious editorial decision.
One implication could be that the individual is considered irrelevant to the event. Strictly, this makes no sense: the event is a wholly individual act with no wider interest. But let’s not dismiss it.
The other possible implication is that there is a risk of threat to the individual. You can imagine a scenario the following morning when Mr Violently-Angry is reading his paper and happens to spot The Skateboarder a couple of seats away. Maybe that’s a bit much; maybe it’ll just be that The Skateboarder is always seen as That Skateboarder. A social stigma that he can’t shake; a brand he can’t erase.
However, while acknowledging the lack of wider interest and/or the threat to the individual, the story of a few people being inconvenienced so mildly that they didn’t even bother to talk to the person that inconvenienced them is still published.
By multiple media.
But, remember, this isn’t about The Skateboarder: it’s hardly likely that he poses a serious national threat of mild inconvenience. It’s not even about the event, because the event is so trivial that it could have been undone with a six-second conversation. It is all about context. And contexts can be engineered. In fact, the event is so trivial and the engineering of the context so important that removing the individual is the most fundamental part of the editorial process.
The fact is that the blurring is not so much an act of anonymisation as it is one of weaponisation.
The void left by the removal of The Skateboarder is filled with All Skateboarders. The identity at which the finger is pointed is no longer defined by a face but an accoutrement. This is a deft deflection of an acknowledged reaction. It is not an identity removal; it is an identity transplant.
The people who identify with me and not The Skateboarder will look at my photo in the paper and see an event that they find objectionable, committed by an individual who has been editorially whitewashed, served up in the engineered context of All Skateboarders. And they’ll absorb it. And sooner or later, consciously or subconsciously, they’ll be picking up on little things and providing their own little sparks to ignite the fuel in the social engineering machine.
Really, the problem is that most trains don’t have a decent place to put a bicycle, and the nationally-reported event in each case is that someone made a poor decision as to where to put theirs.
But don’t dismiss the media reaction—which is, please note, both widespread and unequivocal—as harmless whimsy: that is not the nature of editorial decisions.