Monday, December 23, 2013

WWPD Guides: social media and shaming

Another day, another online-idiocy-and-shaming debacle. This time, though, it's not a private action made public, it seems, but a public posting made, err, extra-public?

So, so, so many thoughts on this, but a few scattered ones, before I forget...

-When is stupidity fair game for online mockery? It depends: Who was the intended/plausible audience of whichever act/post?

There's a spectrum, from a private incident observed or private conversation had, to a mass email/Facebook post, to a tweet or blog post, to an article in a small online publication, to a big one, to one of the ones whose very purpose is making things go viral. Someone's fussing about a latte being with the wrong amount of foam? Yes, that's annoying for the barista, not to mention for you, the person waiting in line behind Mr./Ms. Fussy. If you feel compelled to share this on social media - and why not, if you can convey it in a clever way - by all means, do so... in text. Don't post a photo of this person, as if they're America's Most Wanted. Don't launch some campaign to identify this person, their place of work, etc. And so on. Very obviously public-audience-intended means a far lower threshold for what can be made fun of in an identifiable way.

-What's the purpose of the mockery? Is it genuine anger that someone could be so racist/sexist/etc.? Is any of it a dare I say a performance of indignation, a fear that if one doesn't register one's disapproval, one will lose one's post as Sensitive Person on whichever social-media platform? Is what's being mocked innocent stupidity and not racist/sexist/etc.? There's something to be said for shaming truly awful behavior, behavior that nevertheless falls short of what even a non-libertarian such as myself would oughta-be-a-law. But people just being kind of unpleasant? Shame the unpleasantness in a way that doesn't shame the person. If you must do the latter to do the former, do neither.

-Is the object of your fury a famous person? We're so accustomed to stories of celebrities and politicians gaffe-ing it up a storm, then it'll be like, oops, and then life goes on. The same redemption narrative may not go over so well for ordinary people who lose their jobs, reputations, and so forth when one mistake in an otherwise anonymous life becomes the thing they're known for. I think what happens is, once someone's incident, whatever it is, goes viral, they feel like a public figure to the people reading about the incident online. It just starts to feel like a story that's out there, and this person's name is already just so known by the time you've arrived at it. But they're not actually famous, as in famous beyond this incident. It's a very different situation.

-What about the (inadvertent) shaming of people in your life? Oversharing about others brings up two separate privacy concerns: that of the person being discussed without consenting to this, and that of the person doing the sharing, who may imagine he or she is sharing with a far smaller audience than is the case. As such, overshare needs to be treated as something about which people need education, not as a self-evident wrong. This is something I've come to realize, having first addressed parental, then teacher, overshare. In both cases - and in others I've yet to hold forth about - someone will feel as if they're telling an anecdote from their own life that's of course theirs to share, when in fact... But the point shouldn't be to start shaming the oversharers. At least not before they've had a good explanation or several about why whichever type of sharing is excessive.

Again, what happens is, most of us know yet don't know what it means to say something to a lot of people. Typing a private email feels like typing a status update, which feels like typing something that will be emailed to an editor who will, in turn, post it before a huge audience. You never really get the presence of your audience, big or small, the way you would if in a big crowd. A funny thing happens, and the impulse is to share. It's what everyone else is doing, so it won't feel like a big deal. But an "overheard-in-NY"-type story is different from an overheard-in-my-nuclear-family one.

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