On Thursday, a man was jailed in Reno after he was shamed, humiliated, and excoriated on social media for committing a crime so heinous nothing short of a digital scarlet letter would suffice. The man, according to the AP, skipped out on a $100 bill at a local brewpub.
And in today’s New York Times, there was this story about locals in the Hamptons starting websites to share and publicly expose the boorish behavior of the moneyed vacationers who flood the area every summer.
These stories appeal directly to my liberal sensibilities and my townie upbringing, especially because I’ve 1) worked in restaurants and 2) worked at restaurants in vacation spots that were populated by the often oblivious and inconsiderate uber-rich (of course, most of them were fine, but there’s always a few who provided the fuel for many after-shift bitching and drinking sessions). It’s good to see people use social media and the internet to expose assholes. But like all tools we use to punish bad guys, we need to think about our definition of bad guys before using them.
The idea of humiliating people publicly for not following the rules or sticking to the culture’s plan is not new. What is new is how instantaneously we can do this, how anonymously we can report violations, and how impossible it can be to separate yourself from a violation you may have committed, no matter how far away you move or how much time passes. The power of society to use social media to self-regulate and expose negative behavior, whether illegal or not, is growing at the rate at which the percentage of our behavior that is public and easily documented increases. While the federal government’s snooping brings immediate Orwellian accusations of Big Brother type monitoring and control, we are less likely to be outraged about the increasing power of the people around us to ensure we are acting properly. In the examples above, we are talking about the digital equivalent of old school, throw-him-in-the-stocks-punishment for breaking law(s) or hurting the community. It starts to get tricky, however, when we start talking about doing the same to ensure compliance with the social contract.
Big brother is scary (see, Snowden, Edward, or Hastings, Michael) and we need to have a serious debate about the power the government has to track our communications. But that’s an old, monolithic idea, and if there’s anything that this age does pretty well its finding ways to make old monolithic ideas irrelevant. Big Brother, real as it may or may not be, is a twentieth century idea. The digital age has produced something else, a decentralized network of behavioral monitoring and shaming that we both participate in and are influenced by. We need to be aware of our enlistment in, and our monitoring by, the army of Little Brothers.
We all know that everyone is a journalist now, that everyone has a camera, and that any ridiculous behavior can be documented and publicized. Politicians and celebrities were the first to be aware of this. George Allen thought he was aware of this in the video below, which is why it’s so amazing that he can be talking about the constant documentation of his campaign speeches and events by his opponent, while calling the guy doing it “macaca,” which may or may not be a racial slur.
George Allen saw the camera. The lesson Mitt Romney learned is that you can’t ever be sure there aren’t cameras around.
By now, everybody knows they could be documented at anytime. But that doesn’t stop a white NFL player from dropping an N-bomb on a black security guard at a Kenny Chesney concert, and doing it INTO A CAMERA.
These moments that result from a perfect confluence of rage, hate, ignorance, and inebriation are perfect for the internet because they produce short, explosive, declarations that, if documented, can be watched in seconds. There’s no context, but when someone behaves this inappropriately none is really necessary.
Then something like this goes viral. It’s a woman getting very angry at a retail employee, which is never cool, even if the employee has a frustratingly misleading title like “Genius.”
That women yelling? She’s really not saying anything bad or wrong. All she’s doing is saying she was promised something she isn’t getting. She’s just doing it at an inappropriate volume. She had a mini freak out. She will be known for this forever now. I’m not sure the punishment fits the crime.
Our ability to shame people for doing hateful things is a good thing. Our ability to know where the sexual predators live, to force people confront their rotten behavior, to put all actions up to a jury of our peers will hopefully force us to think about our own behavior in ways we maybe would not have before. However, people make mistakes. In this era, when a name can never be truly separate from the results Google connects to it, a simple mistake can define you forever. Even if it isn’t caught on video.
Here’s a rather interesting case study of a guy just sort of being a douche and getting publicly destroyed for it. Basically, a married dude hit on a girl he was sitting next to on a plane. I have overheard cringe-worthy attempts by men to ingratiate themselves to attractive young women sitting next to them on planes (and one time, I witnessed a truly awful attempt by a middle aged man to hit on the girl sitting in front of him). I know this is a bad practice. A few kind words to establish some friendly appreciation of shared space is one thing, but to hold a woman (or anybody) hostage for the duration of a flight with focused attention, explanations of personal philosophy, and intrusive questions is really brutal, since she can’t go anywhere. But it’s also not really enough to make the recipient freak out, which is what makes it such a dick move. It is a gross exploitation of the social contract.
Of course, it happens all the time. And there is no real penalty for it.
So what supposedly happened is an actor named Brian Presley held a model named Melissa Stetten hostage during a cross-country flight in the way I just described (although he did go to sleep after awhile, so it wasn’t the whole flight). We know this because Melissa live tweeted the whole thing, which is not a really objective way of reporting something, and is nothing like getting caught on video. Still, reading her tweets, Brian sounds like a total douche, and also like a satiric incarnation of the collective Hollywood fakeness and hypocrisy in good looking bro form, which is why ripping on him is so appealing.
But Melissa never says Brian’s full name, nor does she seem interested in finding out who he is, at least at first. She just thinks its funny and probably a little embarrassing for everyone involved and is going to use the experience as an opportunity to entertain her 13,000 Twitter followers. She allowed him to do things like take off his wedding ring in the bathroom and spout about his relationship with God in relative anonymity. But then her followers tried to figure out who he was, and when she confirmed his identity, all of a sudden Brian was outed nationally as an asshole. Brian hadn’t done anything illegal, or cruel, and he hadn’t even propositioned her in any real way. He was just being sort of a douche bag.
This might be one thing if Brian was famous before this. But he really wasn’t. Now he sort of is. After hearing about what happened, Brian posted this on his Facebook wall, which, all of Melissa’s accusations aside, makes him sound guilty by talking like a “cool” church youth counselor:
Certainly, it’s better if Brian didn’t do what he allegedly did. But do we know he was trying to cheat? Maybe he was just flirting? None of this really matters at all, and the only reason we know about this is that both people involved are D-list celebrities, and in the words of Derek Zoolander “really, ridiculously good looking.” What is worrisome is that this kind of borderline behavior can be punished swiftly and quickly without really knowing the story, and tattle tales and gossips have real power to destroy people on the public record. Whereas Big Brother turns the world into a police state, the Little Brother army turns the world into a hall monitor state, where a few people with an overdeveloped sense of duty and limited power feel the need to point out any and all malfeasance. Anybody who has read Yelp reviews sees the indignant person who needs to record a tiny mistake made at a restaurant for posterity. These people are terrible, and usually the overwhelming flood of information will drown them out. But a person isn’t a business, and while we forgive a bad restaurant experience as one of screw up among thousands of meals delivered, I’m not sure we give people the same amount of leeway.
We live in a time where a strange paradox has begun to take effect. We give ourselves more personal power to express our opinions publicly, while simultaneously allowing other’s opinions of us to be permanently attached to us. This gives society a remarkable ability to identify criminals, abusive people, and assholes and make examples of those who are breaking the social contract. It also allows people to destroy people for a mistake. It’s both a good and bad thing, I suppose. What worries me however, is that people make mistakes, and it’s becoming nearly impossible to leave those behind.
We will see where this leads. My hope is that the we will become increasingly forgiving of people who humiliate themselves publicly, that it will happen enough that we learn forgiveness and don’t judge people on what a Google search pops up about them. This is what I hope. I think it’s possible. Remember the Star Wars kid? Turns out he’s doing all right now, thank god, although it sounds like he had a real rough time. He was the one of the first normal, anonymous people to be really humiliated in a viral way on the internet. And it wasn’t just some cyber bullies who did it, although the kids who put it online certainly bear the most responsibility. We all took part in it.
As always, the golden rule applies. May those without sin cast the first tweet.