September 28, 2010 6 Comments kerim In the news

P. Kerim Friedman, NDHU

Paul Chambers, a 27-year old accountant in training from South Yorkshire got fined £1,000 for posting the following text to Twitter last January after learning that Robin Hood airport was closed because of the snow:

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!!

According to the Guardian:

A week later, he was arrested at work by five police officers, questioned for eight hours, had his computers and phones seized and was subsequently charged and convicted of causing a “menace” under the Communications Act 2003.

He was particularly upset because he was trying to see his girlfriend in North Ireland.

Chambers was not cross-examined, but the court heard extracts of his original police interview. “Looking back it’s daft now but that’s my kind of humour,” Chambers had said. “Not for one second did I think anyone would even look at it. It was just a comment made on the back of the fact that the flight had been grounded.” The tweet, Stephen Ferguson pointed out, was made in the context of “a young man and a young woman”.

This case, often referred to on Twitter as #TwitterJokeTrial, raises some important questions about the very nature of language. Just as the printing press blurred the boundary between public and private with the mass publication of diaries and letters, so too have web services like Facebook and Twitter made public discourse which authors originally intended for a small group of “friends” and “followers.” A very similar incident took place when Joe Lipari, upset about an incident at an Apple Store, updated his Facebook profile with a parody of lines from the movie Fight Club (which happened to be on TV that night):

Joe Lipari might walk into an Apple store on Fifth Avenue with an Armalite AR-10 gas powered semi-automatic weapon and pump round after round into one of those smug, fruity little concierges.

As the Guardian reports, Lipari was surprised to find police at his door just a short time after posting his update:

In no time at all plain clothes police armed with MP5 machine guns were knocking on his door. It didn’t help that he had been smoking dope and found the whole scene hilarious, amusement that continued into court, where he was charged with making terrorist threats.

(Lipari’s story was also recently featured on the radio show This American Life.)

But this isn’t just a story about private speech becoming public. It is also one about the very nature of meaning. Many people seem to believe that meaning resides in our heads and is merely expressed through language, which operates as a transparent medium communicating our thoughts to the outside world. Linguistic anthropologists view the construction of meaning very differently. For us the construction of meaning is a social process. It is something that is negotiated through the very act of discourse. A joke is only a joke to the extent that your audience accepts it as such. If, instead, they choose to get offended, or take it seriously, it requires a lot of work on the part of the speaker to explain that the statement was meant as a joke. In such a case there are a range of possible outcomes: the audience might accept that it was a “bad joke” and leave it at that, or they might refuse to except the claim that the statement was intended as a joke.

Here is a famous scene from the movie Goodfellas in which the character played by Joe Pesci exerts his power by choosing to get offended at the fact that his joke was considered funny.

He eventually relents and admits he was joking, but only after he’s made everyone nervous.

The Goodfellas scene brings up another important aspect of how meaning works in real life. Not everyone has an equal say in determining what words mean. When delivering his verdict on the Twitter Joke Trial back in May, District Judge Jonathan Bennett said Paul Chambers’ tweet “was of a menacing nature in the context of the times in which we live.” That is to say, regardless of Paul Chambers’ actual intentions in making the utterance, the context of the War on Terror allowed the state to choose to interpret the statement as a threat – no matter what evidence there might be to the contrary. Paul Chambers does not get to decide what his tweet “meant,” only the state does. Which is why the appeals process has drawn so much media attention. It would be wrong to assume that this is just about the meaning of his Tweet, it is just as much (if not more) about determining who gets to decide.

UPDATE: Clarified exactly how it was that the printing press blurred the boundary between public and private. (Somehow the original text got lost during editing.)