P099: You Can’t Inoculate Yourself Against Affluenza

By the time I got around to checking Twitter this morning, my timeline was in full backlash mode. With each successive tweet I became more and more convinced that this story was just Not For Me. But eventually, my love of wordplay won out and the irresistible portmanteau that is “affluenza” became a part of my vocabulary forever.

The facts of the case are as depressing as they are unsurprising: wealthy Texan sixteen-year-old Ethan Couch got his blood alcohol level up to 3x the legal limit before crashing his truck and killing four people. He was convicted of juvenile DWI manslaughter and sentenced to ten years probation instead of real time because (1) he’s a wealthy white kid, and (2) a psychologist testified that

…after spending more than 50 hours with the Couches, he thought the family was “profoundly dysfunctional.” He said it was clear that Fred and Tonya gave Ethan incredible freedoms, with no regard for the law, and that his abuse of alcohol and drugs had escalated for years.

This “affluenza diagnosis” was widely criticized and the light sentence did nothing to convince neutral bystanders that the justice system (and society in general) was anything other than hopelessly biased towards wealthy white people. Then everybody forgot about it until Ethan Couch and his mother went missing after a video was posted showing Couch (allegedly) violating his probation.

To me, the most surprising thing was that I’d heard none of this until this morning when reports started to surface that Couch had been captured in Puerto Vallarta. I religiously avoid TV news, I very rarely browse news-based websites. All of my news consumption is of the push variety: either through email or various social media channels. Without the backlash from Sick-of-it-all Media Twitter I’d probably never have heard of affluenza at all.

I’ve written before about the tradeoffs in a personalized push notification-based news system. This seems a natural byproduct of that experience: the “above-it-all” tweet that actually brings everyone down a notch. See also the hate-link that becomes an actual link and the fake-spoiler that’s actually a spoiler. If nothing else it shows that social media is, for better and worse, in line with the rest of human experience.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron