June 12, 2013 at 5:49 PM ET
A photo of a man who was allegedly overheard bragging about cheating on his wife went viral on Facebook earlier this week. The Internet said, “Awesome!”
A woman sick of receiving unsolicited photos of genitals from online suitors forwarded a “junk shot” to the mother of the man who sent it. The Internet said, “Super awesome!”
A Dunkin Donuts customer, dissatisfied that she didn’t receive a receipt the day before, filmed an 8-minute rant against a polite, professional employee and posted it on Facebook. Now, the Internet seriously hates her guts.
When grouped with examples of women who appear to be fighting misogyny or enforcing society’s mores, the tale of the dissatisfied Dunkin Donuts patron seems out of place. That’s because the Internet disagreed with her definition of bad behavior. She hoped to inflict viral judgment, but the judgment was on her.
All of these are examples of Internet shaming, a thing many of us approve of ... except, you know, when we don’t.
In places such as China or Mexico, Internet shaming serves a purpose — empowering citizens where law enforcement or mass media fails. A final recourse. In the United States, it's often used as a podium for personal slights, a platform to humiliate those who we feel have wronged us or infringed on the social contract, even when there are other appropriate options.
In China, this crowd-based "human flesh search engine" uses blogs and social media as to call out political corruption, Lisa Nakamura, a professor at the University of Michigan who has researched digital culture since 1994, told NBC News. In Mexico, activists use it to report alleged kidnappings and murders by Mexican drug cartels. By comparison, "a lot of the shaming we’re looking at in the United States seems really personally petty," she said.
A woman was caught on a security camera putting a cat in a garbage bin, which the owner posted on Facebook. Predominantly American Internet users tracked her down, and death threats ensued. The Facebook photo of the man allegedly bragging about cheating? Shared on Facebook 278, 956 times.
In the aftermath of the Boston bombing, people banded together on Reddit and other social media outlets to blast the name of a missing Brown student many thought was a suspect, only to find later, he was a suicide. For all that online crimebusting effort, his family’s pain was made exponentially worse.
The Internet didn’t invent public shaming. Despite rampant viral humiliations, there’s no data to support whether the Internet even increases “Scarlet Letter”-like reprisals, or simply magnifies the behavior in which we’ve indulged since long before Hester Prynne was a gleam in Nathaniel Hawthorne's quill.
“There has always been concern with other people’s behavior, and we’ve always shamed people who don’t behave the way we want them to,” Clay Shirky, author and professor in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University, told NBC News. “What’s more efficient now is the scale. This is village gossip taken to a national or global scale, and it provides a means for bystanders to more easily participate.”
As long as we have the Internet, people will continue to use it call out what they see as bad behavior, Shirky said. "The sense of righteous outrage and group membership are deeply pleasing. These are baseline emotions in the human species, and [Internet shaming] engages both of them."
How quickly the tables turn
Yet even when the village vigilante is perceived as being in the right, crowd-sourced public shaming can have unforeseen and disastrous consequences.
Last March, amid the ongoing debate over rampant sexism in the tech community, software developer Adria Richards tweeted a picture of two male attendees at the PyCon Developers Conference who were making jokes by using the tech words “forking” and “dongles” as doubleentendres.True, Internet outrage emerged, but opposing camps formed, and much of the righteous indignation was directed against Richards. One of the men in the photo lost his job. Richards, who received rape and death threats via Twitter, lost her job, too.
More recently, there’s the woman who forwarded the unsolicited “junk shot” to the mother of the man who allegedly sent it. She posted the entire text exchange — a casual conversation that turns unexpectedly obscene — on her Tumblr blog.
“I didn’t need to see that. I don’t need to be disrespected by someone I don’t even know,” she texted the phone flasher, who repeatedly mocked her response, calling her a prude. Finally, she told him how easy it was to find him on Facebook, and by extension, his mother, to whom she sent the photo. "She should know how you perpetuate rape culture. I am sick of being treated like this.”
It’s easy to pump your fist in righteous appreciation — especially when you’re one of the many women who’ve been on the receiving end of similar harassment. The victim is articulate, sympathetic. The perpetrator comes off as a grammatically impaired thug.
Unfortunately in the Tumblr blog — since removed — screenshots of the conversation made the guy easy for pretty much anybody to track down. Many went on to share their disapproval with the guy as well as his mom. But of course, as with any woman who calls “misogyny” on the Internet, this doesn’t end pleasantly for the accuser, either. Both parties, as well as those close to them, are suffering harassment via phone and the Internet, family members of both told NBC News.
“People talk about the Internet as if it’s a global village, as if the Internet created a real intimacy,” Nakamura said. "The Internet allows us have a lot of access to each other, but it’s not the same as intimacy."
Nakamura, who chronicles sexism and racism on the Internet, said she supports the Tumblr woman's response, and suspects those who didn’t like it share the nightmare of getting busted by mom. “Personal connections made people afraid to do things that were wrong, because you don’t want your mom to find out,” she said. “You’re not going to do a lot of things if you know your mom’s going to see it.”
Nakamura, like most people who ever spent more than an hour on the Internet, isn't surprised that the woman received both cheers and jeers for her act. Those who assume the mantle of Internet justice should prepare for crowd-sourced blow back, now matter how righteous their cause may seem. How bad that blow back will be, along with how many people it'll hit, is the only part you can't predict.