Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Modern Tar and Feathering

I hate Twitter. The majority of us aren’t eloquent enough to articulate our thoughts in 140 characters or less, so what we’re left with is an echo chamber of the most racist, sexist, and incoherently spewed vitriol streaming constantly 24 hours a day. Its anonymity gives users the freedom to spout their worst, knee-jerk responses and its public platform encourages the hive mind to viciously pile onto unsuspecting people.

The recent Gamergate controversy represented everything terrible about Twitter and social media. It was a series of misogynistic and violently worded threats directed toward a few women in the video game industry thinly veiled as a fight for “journalistic integrity.” For months, three women in particular (game programmers Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu and feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian) faced a constant barrage of disparaging tweets insulting their gender, thousands of rape and death threats, and the exposure of their private information (all were forced to leave their homes for a period of time in order to protect their safety). So, yeah, I hate Twitter.

Recently, Jon Ronson wrote a book examining this modern resurgence of public shaming, appropriately titled, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Gamergate is an extreme (but telling) example of “social media justice,” but these sorts of controversies seem to happen every week. A company sends out a poorly-worded Facebook post or someone’s Instagram photo of their racist Halloween costume goes viral and everyone who sees it gets to, in a manner of speaking, have their turn cracking the whip at a virtual public flogging. But what do we really get out of shaming someone?

In his book, Ronson interviews those who have been the on the receiving end of the internet’s fury and it’s clear that the online mob can destroy lives. Ronson describes it this way, “I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we get old and stop. But with social media, we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people.” All of Ronson’s subjects have lost their jobs whether or not their online malfeasance actually warranted being let go. These days, the court of Twitter plays judge, jury, and executioner. Users can create a cacophony of outrage so pervasive that companies feel like they have no other course of action but to fire those being targeted.

Ronson also attempts to pinpoint what it is about shame that is so powerful – examining the lengths people will go to avoid public shame and the physical and emotional toll a public shaming has on a person long after their infamy has faded. But as we know, the internet never forgets. And, in one of the most interesting parts of his book, Ronson spends time with Michael Fertik, a man who has made a business of wiping away people’s online shame through of system of spamming Google’s search algorithms with mundane, safe posts associated with the shamee’s name.

Ronson’s book is a timely investigation into this phenomenon of modern technology and, as a person who spends a lot of time on the internet, taps into something I’ve had to consider before. What are we gaining as a society from tearing people apart? Ronson’s book doesn’t have any hard conclusions, but it’s definitely worth reading to get a sense of how former internet shamees have managed to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. You start to get a sense that people believe shaming works for the greater good, but to me, they’re just cogs in a headless blunder operating under the illusion of a master plan.

~Meredith T.

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