Every week it’s someone new. Perhaps you saw the Mexican singer two weeks ago whose maxi pad fell out from under her dress as she performed on live TV. Then a hacker outed the names of subscribers to Ashley Madison, the “discreet” hookup site for married cheaters.
From illegal (abusive cops) to immoral (campaigning politicians) to merely unfortunate (bozo parents), the online stranger-shaming game offers up viral gotcha videos every single day.
Cameras on drones and dashboards. In pockets and purses. Clamped onto selfie sticks. In an age when technology makes it stupid-easy to both capture and share what used to be private information — and in a culture that’s come to believe it has the right to see and know everything and anything of interest — Internet shaming is the new Salem Witch Trials. The modern public stoning. The 21st-century crucifixion.
We line up for what I like to call the weekly click-and-cluck, clicking on links that promise to scratch our itch for schadenfreude, watching in giddy disbelief and exhilarating outrage, clucking our hypocritical tongues in smug self-satisfaction. Tisk, tisk, tisk.
Why do we do it? Why take willing part in the humiliation of strangers?
“Internet shaming is one of the primary means we have online to correct what we see as counterproductive or harmful behaviors,” says Alison Novak, professor of media studies at Philadelphia’s Temple University. “It’s our collective attempt to negotiate what is right and wrong in the digital space. It’s a part of the growing pains of digital culture.”
Maybe, too, it’s a natural reaction to the perfect-life bullshit that most of us post online. “From stunning vacation pics to selfies at the hottest restaurants in town, people today like to carefully craft their social media brands. It’s the reality they want you to see,” says John Znidarsic, a director of social influence at Cleveland’s Adcom marketing agency. He says we watch gotcha videos to see something real, to be reassured that we all make stupid mistakes (and perhaps that there’s always a mistake just a little stupider than ours).
But in a recent TED talk, Monica Lewinsky — arguably the first victim of online shaming after her affair with president Clinton broke in 1998 — insisted that there’s something more insidious driving this trend: “A marketplace has emerged where public humiliation is a commodity. … We’re in a dangerous cycle: The more we click on this kind of gossip, the more numb we get to the human lives behind it. And the more numb we get, the more we click.”
Most parents will tell you that shame has its merits. It’s how we know that our late-to-toilet-train toddlers will not be wearing diapers to their first job interviews; shame will eventually do what reward stickers, and inane potty songs will not. But a few parents — those whose teens committed suicide in recent years after being debased and denigrated online by peers — will tell you that shame also kills.
Consider this: If cameras followed you around on your worst day, what would they see? How many embarrassments would they capture that you’d never want anyone to see? Would you be littering? Stealing? Screaming at your kids? Would you be looking at porn, flirting with someone you shouldn’t, driving like an asshole? Would you be pounding a glass of wine at 11 a.m., standing at your kitchen sink, just to get through the rest of the day?
Andy Warhol said that in the future, everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. I wonder if, in fact, we’ll all be infamous for a short spell — just long enough for the connected world to see us screwing up, collectively point and laugh at our expense, and move on to jeer at someone else.
If so, be sure to watch for footage of me emerging from the women’s restroom at work this week with the back of my knee-length skirt tucked way up into the top of my not-particularly-attractive underwear, and walking all the way back to my desk before a kind colleague could alert me.
It’d be a shame to miss it.
Starshine Roshell is the author of Broad Assumptions.