On the United Debacle and Deliberation

By now you’ve all heard about United Airlines forcibly removing David Dao from a flight. That happened on Sunday, April 9th,  and so over the past few days we’ve had time for the first-round “analysis” (United is the devil incarnate) along with the second-round “analysis” (United is angelic) and even quite a lot of third-round “analysis” (capitalism is the devil). But we’re only just now starting to get the kinds of analysis that don’t deserve the Bunny Quotes of Shame.1

Or you could call them the Air Quotes of Shame, I guess.

Newsweek is running one of the first of these analyses, and it concludes that United may actually have violated their own contract when they forcibly removed Dao from his seat. The contract allows them to prevent passengers from boarding in the event of an oversold flight, but the problem is that the flight wasn’t oversold (for one) and that Dao was kicked off after boarding rather than being denied boarding (for another).2 There are also provisions for kicking someone off a plan after they’ve boarded, but none of those provisions appear to apply in this case, either.

This is far from the last word. Jens David Ohlin, who wrote the piece, is a lawyer who’s read the contract, but he’s relying for his facts on news reports of what happened. He doesn’t have any more access to the facts than the rest of us. The “last word” is probably months or even years away, at the end of one or more lawsuits.

I wrote this post because I thought Ohlin’s analysis was interesting. But also because the whole “first post” syndrome is interesting in its own right. Over a decade ago, I spent way too much time on Slashdot.3 It’s a social news site–kind of like a pre-Reddit with only one forum and centered on tech–and one of the little oddities is that whenever a new topic was posted there was an immediate rush of utterly useless replies that said only “first post” (or intentional misspellings thereof, sometimes with vulgar and offensive commentary added in for trollish fun.) The replies were utterly useless, the Slashdot filtering algorithms almost always rendered them invisible for most users, but still there were actual human beings out there who either frantically typed and clicked to try and earn that first post privilege or, perhaps more depressingly, spent their time writing macros or scripts to win the prize for them.

Well, the initial reactions to the United debacle–as with all such controversies–are basically wordier versions of the same thing, just content-free “first post” declarations. Don’t get me wrong, some of them were hilarious. The memes were great. (And some of the Slashdot first posts, every now and then, were funny too.) But nobody knew what they were talking about. Seriously, nobody. As far as I can tell, 5 days later, we’re just starting to get analysis that isn’t a total waste of time to read. So, referring to all the blog posts over the past few days, why do people write this stuff? Why does anyone read it?

Those are kind of dumb questions. People read this nonsense because they’re curious and impatient. And people write it because they want attention. I’m not immune. In 2015 I wrote two hot-take pieces4 because I wanted to catch that viral wave. They were both shared widely on Facebook, but I noticed from the stats that only the headline of the first was shared. Practically nobody clicked the link to read my post. And on the second, as more facts came to light I realized my “analysis” had been exactly the kind of facile, self-righteous rush to judgment I usually deplored.

I had another encounter with hot-take fame earlier this year when I wrote a fairly negative review of the newest book in The Expanse series. I listened to the book right after it came out, wrote a review like I always do, posted it, and then was perplexed to see comments and likes start pouring in. It turns out that–just like with news stories–whoever gets the first reviews out for a new book gets the most attention. This is why there are so many people who cheat and write “reviews” weeks or months before the book actually comes out.5 And–also just like with news stories–the hot takes break down into simplistic takes: 4- or 5- star raves and 2- or 1- star slams. As of right now, my review appears to still be at the top of the list of over 800 reviews. I doubt it would have done so well if I’d published the review later or published it with 3-stars.

So I get it, the temptation to write and to read rapid reactions is strong. But it’s also–usually–a waste of time. We can get more accurate info and more reliable, interesting analysis if we can just wait a few days. And if enough people do that, maybe we can find a way to curb first post syndrome.


1 thought on “On the United Debacle and Deliberation”

  1. I sometimes wait, or try to wait to post until more information comes out. I’ve been caught a few times, and watched a few others get caught in the ‘first post’ syndrome and it tends to wear quickly.

    So, IF United violated their own verbiage the passenger has a case against them. He may or may not have a case against the officer, depending on whether or not the officer followed protocol, the rules, or what have you and IF the court doesn’t grant qualified immunity.

    There’s video that came out a few days later showing interaction of the passenger and the officer prior to the now sensational video of him being dragged out. Which is only made worse because of the confined space within the aircraft. Even if he officer’s order was morally wrong, he refused to follow the lawful order (the use of the officer to remove the passenger is also arguably an abuse of the intent of the law for removing passengers) to exit the plane. This would be akin to arguing that the officer who pulled you over for speeding is wrong, on the side of the road; until such time as the officer simply arrests you for not cooperating. That is not the time to argue your point. That’s what court is for.

    In this case, the passenger may face some charges, though I would agree (with having only the same kind s of access as mentioned) that he may also have a case against the airline.

    Really, he knew what was going to happen if he didn’t comply. He made a deliberate choice. The rest looks more like he is just going all out for 15 minutes of fame and as much money as he can rake in from it.

    And no, I don’t necessarily absolve United of any wrongdoing either. The entire thing could have easily been handled differently. On a side note, if they did breach their own verbiage on carriage clause or whatever it’s called, I hope the other people removed sue. After watching Mr. Dao get dragged off it would be enough for any sane person to be persuaded to immediately take the involuntary removal immediately or risk facing what he went through.

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