05 Apr 2015, 09:02

A perspective on internet shaming

This morning on Reddit, I saw a post with the following title: “This f—face threw a drink at a landscaper and drove away laughing.” It was a link to a blurry picture of a guy in a Jeep. I immediately felt anger towards the anonymous face in the driver-side window, the face of someone so entitled and lacking in empathy that they’d ruin someone’s morning just for laughs.

Almost as quickly, I was reminded of this article: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/feb/21/internet-shaming-lindsey-stone-jon-ronson. Even if you’re not familiar with Lindsey Stone’s story, you’ve probably already heard it, just with different names and circumstances: a person does something that looks really bad on camera, it’s picked up on social media, and within days that person’s whole life has turned upside-down. The internet has made this sort of thing possible. Before it was the case that everyday people had the ability to rapidly share a photo with millions of others, one of two things would have happened to folks like Lindsey Stone or the man in the Reddit post:

  1. No one would have said or done anything at all.
  2. A witness who was sufficiently annoyed would have confronted them. In all likelihood, the confrontation would have been over within seconds or maybe minutes, and everyone would go on with their lives.

Things are different now. Sure, most of the time nothing nearly as extreme happens as what happened to Lindsey Stone, but what happened to her is now possible in a way that it didn’t used to be.

Let me be clear: I’m not very interested in discussing whether this new state of affairs is good or bad, right or wrong. You may feel bad for Lindsey Stone, or you may think she got what was coming to her. I’m not taking a position on that, or on anyone else who finds themselves in a similar situation. I have my opinions on it, but I don’t want to go into them here.

Instead, what I find fascinating is how similar these technologies (the internet and social media) in this context are to the conception of a very different technology, firearms, in Freakonomics by Stephen J Dubnar and Steven D Levitt. Here’s a quote from the relevant section of the book:

It might be worthwhile to take a step back and ask a rudimentary question: what is a gun? It’s a tool that can be used to kill someone, of course, but more significantly, a gun is a great disrupter of the natural order.

A gun scrambles the outcome of any dispute. Let’s say that a tough guy and a not-so-tough guy exchange words in a bar, which leads to a fight. It’s pretty obvious to the not-so-tough guy that he’ll be beaten, so why bother fighting? The pecking order remains intact. But if the not-so-tough guy happens to have a gun, he stands a good chance of winning. In this scenario, the introduction of a gun may well lead to more violence.

In case you’re wondering, the authors do not go on to take an anti-gun position. However, just as I said above regarding internet shaming, I’m not here looking to wade into the gun control debate.

Rather, I just find it interesting to notice the similarities of the two situations. In both, a piece of technology seriously alters the natural order. Whether it’s a gun or social media, the technology has the potential to dramatically change the way humans interact. I’m curious if our culture will catch up to the possibility of internet shaming; that once people become more accustomed to the new world in which we live, they’ll behave better (or be more inhibited) due to fear of the social media consequences. If I had to guess, I’d say it isn’t likely, just as the existence of guns has not eradicated bar fights. But who knows.