A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Internet…

Except mistaken identity isn’t as funny when it happens to you

In the 1960s, a musical comedy about a case of mistaken identity titled “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” became a hit on Broadway. (It later became a movie.) Written by Stephen Sondheim, the musical is a bawdy tale set in Ancient Rome involving satire, farce, and several bad puns. The principal actors wear several disguises as they dramatize mistaken identity.

Although this is an older musical, it’s experienced some revivals (in 1996 and 2004), and several great comedic actors have starred in it (John Carradine, Buster Keaton, Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers, even Whoopi Goldberg!). Why the musical has experienced a revival in my own mind is because of an experience I had recently.

I’m familiar with the concept of mistaken identity. No, I don’t resemble anyone famous (although I’ve passed for Elvis a number of times; I’m an Elvis Tribute artist). But when I’m not trying to look like him, I’ve certainly never been identified as a leading actor or for anyone else but plain old me. However, recent events have demonstrated the potential for mistaken identity in an online sense.

The Internet is a bastion of free speech. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn — sure, they all have “decency standards” (or so they say) and they have “monitors” to censure and warn users. However, these are subjective tools, not objective, so what’s offensive to one person may not be to another.

Many folks think they are anonymous on the Internet. Actually, you’re not. It’s fairly simple for someone who understands operating systems and networking to monitor your IP address, look at your browsing history and evaluate your purchasing patterns when you get online and browse or use popular social media platforms.

Sure, you can use a “Virtual Private Network” (VPN) or a “Virtual Private Server” (VPS). You can use a browser that does not track your searches (duckduckgo is popular). You can even download add-ons to browsers that use secure protocols — and on and on. Most people either don’t know how to anonymize, or don’t care, and so their information is tracked, qualified and their advertising “choices” (funny word, choices) are modified accordingly.

What’s this all got to do with this particular blog? Well, I experienced a case of mistaken identity — and then some — this past week.

First, understand that I manage a “business incubator” (a program to help small startup companies to grow and enhance the economy while bringing new life-changing inventions to market). The incubator provides space, support, equipment and networking to newly formed companies. Most companies form around a technology, and in my case, the companies in my program are all biotechnology/biomedical startups.

The name of the incubator is UF Innovate | Sid Martin Biotech, named after former state congressman Sid Martin who did a lot for economic development in the area he served. (Note the past tense.)

Sid Martin Biotech has been a real difference-maker to the local, state and national economy over its 25 years of operation. We’ve supported over 100 new companies and created over 7,600 new jobs in the biotech/biomedicine arena. The companies served by Sid Martin Biotech have brought over $8.8 billion into the local/regional/state economy.

That’s all good and it helps everyone. Plus, Sid Martin Biotech is a three-time global award-winning program, which is a big deal.

So… the “funny thing” that happened is a clear case of mistaken identity — or mistaken association. A politician gave us a lot of praise and kudos in a short speech and then posted it on social media. Normally, having someone in the public eye draw attention to our business incubator is a bonus. But on the same day, the politician did something apparently controversial and upsetting.

People IMMEDIATELY went to the congressman’s social media feed and chose the most recent post — the one in which he’d tagged us and the university — and started replying with words and comments I’d never want my mother to read. Because we were tagged, any replies to him (nearly 10K) went to him and us.

When we began to receive a flurry of criticism, insults and general complaints, we were puzzled for a while (we hadn’t heard of the controversial part yet), but then figured it out pretty fast. The post had nothing to do with the controversy; WE had nothing to do with the controversy. However, that didn’t stop the illuminati of the Internet from beating up on us. He tagged us — and so we were it, the target of Internet disdain.

Some people went beyond a simple reply on the congressman’s account and sought us on social media and beyond. They attacked us for supporting him (we simply accepted his accolades). They demanded we denounce him and suggested we must approve of his alleged misdeeds if we didn’t.

Some emailed our facility, accusing “Sid” of doing the wrong thing. Well, Sid’s been gone from this planet for quite a few years — since 1996. People have even called our incubator, asking to “talk to that bad Sid Martin guy” — um, that’s not going to happen.

Plus, Sid Martin Biotech (the incubator, the program, not Sid Martin the deceased man) was simply recognized for excellence in our field. We were not endorsing anyone, any action or anything. Yet, once an incorrect association is made it’s hard to change people’s preconceived notions (a la “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” way to fix things).

So the moral here? Well, there ain’t always a moral, folks, but in general, “don’t jump to conclusions” and “have your facts straight first” and “be careful to think first before you speak” are all excellent axioms for this type of situation.

The potential anonymity of the Internet and the potential to make “political hay” out of anything are apparently irresistible to some folks. In this case, someone chose the last tweet the congressman had made and simply used it to launch an attack; others piled onto that first reply. We were caught in the crosshairs, guilty by association.

However political you may be, make sure you check the facts first, OK? Otherwise, people get hurt unintentionally. I’m sorry that this tome isn’t funnier and lighter, but it’s not a fun subject this time. Being attacked for something you did not do or did not participate in or did not endorse is a tragedy today — not a “comedy tonight”!

Mark Long has long experienced the intricacies of business incubation, acceleration, coworking spaces, makerspaces and other entrepreneurial assistance venues. UF Innovate supports an innovation ecosystem that moves research discoveries from the lab to the market, making the world a better place.

Originally published on August 4, 2020, on the IncubatorBlogger.

Includes Tech Licensing, Ventures, and two business incubators, The Hub and Sid Martin Biotech. We are an innovation ecosystem.

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