The Internet Shame Machine


“I won’t back down from bullying a 12 year old girl if needed to reach my goal,” read the lawyer’s website. The asshole hockey dad had gotten a lesson in Internet justice. But is this reason to celebrate?

George Atis had written an agenda item for a pee-wee hockey team, using imperious language to say that the one girl on the team was dragging down the team. The Toronto Star wrote about the girl quitting the team, Reddit got wind of it, and the rest was Internet history.

Rage and shaming on the Internet isn’t at all new, of course, but its velocity and reach have both intensified, as The Times notes today. Not everyone knows how to hack into a random dude’s professional site, but many do know how to rant on Twitter or in a YouTube comment.

All of that is happening as anyone can be propelled into the public eye without warning. Sometimes the end effect is fantastic, even when its genesis is difficult — see Briggs, Nicola — but just as often it’s a matter of disproportionate force and questionable impact.

The Times takes as its example the woman who threw a cat into a garbage can. It’s true, the 20,796 people on Facebook who called for her to be “locked up” weren’t wrong that she did a bad thing, though you could argue about the punishment. But now what? Will fewer people be cruel to animals because one woman got yelled at a lot about doing so?

It all seems less about the target of the shaming and more about the people engaged in it. Sometimes, posting about all the bad news in the world of varying scale — be it a jerk dad or a celebrity being a tool, all the way up to, say, sexual assault in a disaster zone and systemic miscarriages of justice — starts to feel like an exercise in riled-up futility. It needs to be talked about, and yet the outrage can sometimes feel like a dead-end. This was essentially Malcolm Gladwell’s complaint in his controversial New Yorker piece about social media‘s inability to effect social change:

It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo. If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause.

Even when the power of Internet justice is used for good, the scale is also of the “buffing around the edges” variety. It varies a bit — this list of “Reddit’s Astonishing Altruism” ranges from getting a stiffed pizza delivery person a $30 tip to “saving the life” of a depressed young woman — but it’s all piecemeal and decentralized, as the whole Internet is.

You could look at it as people who didn’t feel empowered before, and who feel angry at injustice in the world of all sizes, now finding their voices. Or you could see it as a depressing sign of how disempowered people feel in realms that don’t involve anonymous commenting.

The New Court of Shame Is Online [NYT]
Related: Reddit’s Astonishing Altruism [Voltier]
Small Change [New Yorker[
Earlier: Asshole Dad Causes Girl To Quit Boys’ Hockey Team

Helder Almeida/Shutterstock

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