Why You Should Think Twice Before Shaming Anyone on Social Media

Earlier this year, at a tech conference called PyCon, the consultant Adria Richards overheard some indelicate puns — involving the terms “dongles” and “forking” — from a couple of male attendees sitting behind her. The jokes made Richards uncomfortable, so in the heat of the moment she decided to register her displeasure by tweeting a picture of the two guys, calling their behavior “not cool.”
In the context of a tech culture that often fails to make women feel welcome, it’s easy to see why Richards, sitting there in the (roughly 80 percent male) PyCon audience, felt like she wasn’t the one with the power in that room.
But online it was a different story. The two men were social-media nobodies, whereas Richards had more than 9,000 Twitter followers, some highly connected in the tech world. Her grievance quickly received more than 100 retweets and press coverage that stretched from The Washington Post to MSNBC.
PyCon soon responded — sympathetically — to her complaint, but the damage was done. One of the men was recognized by his employer and lost his job. The backlash against his firing then triggered a massive onslaught of online abuse against Richards, who also got fired. No one emerged happy. “I have three kids, and I really liked that job,” wrote the newly unemployed jokester. “Let this serve as a message to everyone, our actions and words, big or small, can have a serious impact.” Later, Richards made a similar assessment: “I don’t think anyone who was part of what happened at PyCon that day could possibly have imagined how this issue would have exploded into the public consciousness … I certainly did not, and now … the severest of consequences have manifested.”
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.
The fundamental problem is that many shamers, like Richards, don’t fully grasp the power of the medium. It’s a problem that lots of us need to reckon with: There are millions of Twitter accounts with more than 1,000 followers, and millions on Facebook with more than 500 friends. The owners of those accounts might think they’re just regular people, whispering to a small social circle. But in fact they’re talking through megaphones that can easily be turned up to a volume the entire world can hear.
Increasingly, our failure to grasp our online power has become a liability — personally, professionally, and morally. We need to think twice before we unleash it.

When Does Shaming Become Bullying?

Consider a form of shaming that a lot of us might want to get behind: calling out people who say indefensibly terrible things online. Numerous Tumblr and Twitter accounts have cropped up to document racist and sexist remarks on social media. Following a feed like @EverydaySexism or @YesYoureRacist can be a powerful experience; after a while, the shocking ugliness fades to a dull, steady ache, an emotional corrosion that simulates how the dehumanization of prejudice can become almost mundane. These feeds shame the jerks they highlight by broadcasting their ignorance far beyond their typically small, like-minded audiences to tens of thousands of people.
When the website Jezebel cataloged a series of racist tweets by high school students about President Obama, it not only published their names but also called their high schools and notified the principals about their tweets. In some cases, Jezebel listed the hobbies and activities of the students, essentially “SEO-shaming” them to potential colleges. Most of the kids have since deleted their Twitter accounts, but search any of their names on Google and you’ll likely find references to their racist tweets within the first few results.
Yes, what these kids wrote was reprehensible. But does a 16-year-old making crude comments to his friends deserve to be pilloried with a doggedness we typically reserve for politicians and public figures — or, at the very least, for adults?
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.
And this is precisely the differential that so many of us fail to grasp when our friends and followers are just abstract numbers on a social-media profile. Indeed, the online elite don’t always wield the same sort of social power and influence in their offline lives and jobs; many have been victims of bullying themselves.
When Mike “Gabe” Krahulik, the artist behind the popular webcomic Penny Arcade, heard that an unprofessional PR rep for a game controller had been insulting and taunting one of his readers, he gleefully posted the damning emails to his website, along with the man’s Twitter name, for the express purpose of unleashing the Internet kraken.
“I have a real problem with bullies,” Krahulik wrote, after the marketer was deluged with hate mail. “I spent my childhood moving from school to school and I got made fun of every place I landed. I feel like he is a bully and maybe that’s why I have no sympathy here. Someday every bully meets an even bigger bully, and maybe that’s me in this case.”

By Laura Hudson
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