The force and amplitude of online recrimination has only one setting – absolute judgement and vigilantism. The hammer is so powerful – so damaging – but we act as if every circumstance is a nail. Worse still, we deliver that hammer blow to ordinary people who may or may not have made a single, sometimes innocuous mistake, destroy their lives and then move on to the next outrage as if we are content to play whac-a-mole with other people’s lives.
Jon Ronson’s recent book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed details a harrowing number of cases of people who have had their lives totalled by online shaming – Justine Sacco, the PR pro who made an off-colour joke about AIDS in Africa and lost her job.
Lindsey Stone, the special needs caregiver who had taken to posting photos of her faking noncompliance with posted signage, including one to maintain silence and respect at the Arlington National Cemetery, losing her job and receiving multiple death threats for something she thought she was sharing with only her own Facebook friends.
Two developers getting fired for making jokes about big dongles to each other at a conference, and the woman that outed them on Twitter also fired after the Men’s Right’s Activists on 4chan DDoS attacked her employer and held their site for ransom.
The effect is indiscriminate, arbitrary and utterly terrifying. Was this what we thought we were going to use social media for? Is this honestly the best we can do?
Humour without context can be a killer
I’m not saying that the people who have been named and shamed on the internet are without fault. I work in communications, for godsakes, and I manage multiple social media accounts. As a consequence, I see dumb stuff posted by dumb students and public all the time; people using our twitter handle in their messages to their friends, not realizing that people like me are literally employed in part to watch and comment on online conversations.
I want people to be themselves online. I want authenticity in conversation, genuine emotion and feedback. There’s nothing more enervating than reading an individual compose a tweet in the language of #brands because they are so concerned about their personal online image.
That being said, we need to remember that when we send these messages out, they are going to someone. That someone is an actual human person – even when you’re tweeting hate at @Doritos for their lack of BOLD TASTE in their limited edition Avengers-themed #tastesensations (not that I know anyone who may or may not have done this).
Don’t mention the war
I have made this mistake before – writing utterly tasteless Oktoberfest-themed jokes at the Austrian-Canadian Club because I had consumed about 15 Stiegels and thought it was hilarious they even had a Twitter account. When you find out that the Twitter account is managed by the Club’s 65-year old admin assistant, and you realize that all of the jokes about Germanic culture being totally heteronormative and absolutely not compensating for anything were going to somebody’s Grandma, you can and should feel shame.
One of my good friends had invited me out to that Oktoberfest event, and I had acted like an ass. I felt terrible, and I deleted all the tweets and wrote an apology to the Club for being a jerk. When I think about it now, I still feel sick to my stomach. This is the power of social media writ large – that those jokes – which were far, far more offensive than the things that Sacco, Stone and the developers joked about – and it is only by the grace of the Internet Gods that I wasn’t turned into a pillar of salt in the same way as these other people.
I felt bad! I should feel bad! The people mentioned in Ronson’s book feel bad! The corrective had been applied, but somehow that isn’t enough. For most of these people, their lives were effectively destroyed. In each of these cases, we forgot for a moment that the things we did and said had a real effect on the people beyond our target audience. For each of these cases, we did and said things that we would probably never do and say in our non-digital lives (except for me – you put 15 Stiegels in my body, I would probably make those jokes to Werner Faymann, Chancellor of Austria).
The future is not more shame, but grace
There is no sign that this is going to slow down or stop. People are going to keep doing and saying dumb stuff, and until we start recalibrating our expectations of people online, the Outrage Factory is going to keep turning out new pillars of salt.
Recently, the province I live in had an election, and we had our first change in government in 44 years. Unbelievably, the same party had run a large portion of Canada since the days of Leonid Brezhnev. They got tossed out in hilarious, schadenfreude-filled fashion, replaced with a party with deep ties to the Canadian left.
Immediately, my more conservative friends and family began sharing photos of some of the newly-elected representatives on Facebook, some of the photos taken in their early 20s. Photos of these kids standing next to pot leaf t-shirts, giving the Canadian flag the finger…the same kind of dumb kid stuff. Of course, this has led to calls to disqualify her as a candidate, and that she must immediately resign.
Why? For godsakes, where is the flex in our culture if we can’t accommodate a photo taken five years ago, next to a dumb t-shirt?
What is missing in our online conversations is a sense of forgiveness – and a belief that people should be allowed to learn from their mistakes. Behaviour has consequences, but as our online selves begin at younger ages, before we have the prefrontal cortex to even contemplate the decisions we are making properly, shouldn’t we allow for people to make mistakes, to say dumb stuff and feel bad about it without annihilating them in the process?
We are never going to get out of this cycle, if not for grace. If we don’t learn how to forgive – if not forget – we have very little chance of making this place we are building a more welcoming community.
Header photo by Joe Gatling.
You can follow Colin on Twitter @ColinBrandt.