Shaming, it seems, has become a core competency of the Internet, and it’s one that can destroy both lives and livelihoods. But the question of who’s responsible for the destruction — the person engaging in the behavior or the person revealing it — depends on whom you ask. At its best, social media has given a voice to the disenfranchised, allowing them to bypass the gatekeepers of power and publicize injustices that might otherwise remain invisible. At its worst, it’s a weapon of mass reputation destruction, capable of amplifying slander, bullying, and casual idiocy on a scale never before possible.
…We despise racism and sexism because they bully the less powerful, but at what point do the shamers become the bullies? After all, the hallmark of bullying isn’t just being mean. It also involves a power differential: The bully is the one who’s punching down.
…Internet speech can be cruder and crueler than our real-life interactions, in large part due to our literal distance from the people we’re talking to and their reactions. That detachment can sometimes be liberating, and it’s often a good thing that people speak bluntly online, especially against injustice that they see around them. But a sense of proportion is crucial. These days, too many Internet shame campaigns dole out punishment that is too brutal for the crime. Using an influential social media account to call out individuals, as Richards did, isn’t simply saying something is “not cool”; it’s a request to have someone put in the digital stocks, where a potentially unlimited number of people can throw digital stones at them. And it turns out to have real-life consequences for everyone involved.
There are a lot of things about the social web that are various degrees of annoying, but this is a phenomenon I truly despise. Assholes are a fact of life, but they can be avoided or ignored in many cases. The panopticon of small town life is stifling, but it can be escaped by moving to a bigger city. But in the age of social media, assholes with a small-town desire to obsessively monitor everyone else’s behavior have mixed technology with self-righteousness to create the ultimate high: a belief that a better world is created by indulging one’s most petty, vindictive, assholish urges. The only thing anyone “learns” by being on the receiving end of one of these vigilante campaigns is to fear provoking mob action, something we should all know by now, and nothing we should be celebrating.