... I never cease to be struck by the fact that so many people still fail to grasp that the social media are public. These technological innocents seem to think that you can use them to communicate exclusively with a small circle of friends—which is normally true. Yet the potential for attracting an infinitely wider audience is always there.
Should unhappy shamees know better than to post the silly selfies and tasteless tweets that get them into trouble? Perhaps, but it’s too easy to answer yes. Twitter, after all, wasn’t created until 2006, and it took a fair amount of additional time for it to become a fully empowered agent of the secular arm of politico-personal correctness. We are still adjusting to that horrific development.
No doubt a time will come when we’ve all learned to watch our electronic mouths. Until then, I can only offer the same advice that I gave many years ago to a then-obscure performer about whom I wrote a profile that helped to put her on the road to fame. When I interviewed her for the piece—on tape, mind you—she said a number of things that would have caused her embarrassment had I quoted her. I liked her and admired her artistry, so at the end of the interview, I said, “Can I give you a piece of advice? Journalists are not your friends. Most of them would have printed what you said without a second thought. I won’t, but I want you to remember something for as long as you live: no matter how nice a reporter may seem, you must always treat each interview as an adversary proceeding.”
That’s how the social media work, too. Use them prudently and they can be a source of enormous pleasure and profit, but never forget that the sharks of cyberspace lie in wait to bite your hand off. They don’t care about you. In fact, you don’t even exist to them, save as an abstract symbol of their preferred causes. What they want, ever and always, is power, and they’ll happily eat you in order to get more of it. If you’re not prepared to bite back—hard—then stay out of the deep end.
We swim in a sea in which we can forget it's open-access, in theory if not always so readily in practice. Countable numbers of people, a lot of them, are on-line and publishing stuff who may not realize that, in principle, whatever they just published could be in cyberspace for as long as there IS cyberspace. Even if you might hope for take-backs and use robots.txt to thwart things like the WayBack Machine, somebody may have captured the moment.
And then there's this thing about shame ...
But as Lane suggests, shame doesn't just punish wrongdoers; it also turns us into our own moral enforcers. Once we've been shamed, we are strongly motivated to avoid doing the things that brought it on. Or at least, most of us are -- one of the hallmarks of sociopaths is that they don't feel shame or remorse. To paraphrase Gordon Gekko, shame is good. Shame is right. Shame works.
So we need shame. The problem is, maybe we don't always need so much of it.
In the small groups we evolved to live in, shame is tempered by love and forgiveness. People are shamed for some transgression, then they are restored to the group. Ultimately, the shamed person is not an enemy; he or she is someone you need and want to get along with. This is how you make up with your spouse after one or both of you has done or said something terrible.
In a large group, shame is punishment, but it still has a restorative aspect. One of the most surprising passages of Ronson's book reveals that the drunken driver who had to stand by the side of the road with a sign detailing his crimes got more compassion and support than bitter catcalls from the people who drove by him.
On the Internet, when all the social context is stripped away and you don't even have to look at the face of the person you're being mean to, shame loses its social, restorative function. Shame-storming isn't punishment. It's a weapon. And weapons aren't supposed to be used against people in your community; they're for strangers, people in some other group that you don't like very much.
We Americans can have an adversarial relationship to even the idea that shame works, but social psychologist Roy Baumeister has proposed that shame, or its rear-ward looking variation guilt, is one the greatest disincentives toward doing wrong. At the risk of quoting from one's self:
So what, then, holds people back from doing evil things? If, as Baumeister so plainly proposes, everyone can and will be tempted to do or say something evil at some point and harm someone, why isn't there more evil? If evil is defined as emotional, verbal, and physical cruelty what restrains us? Baumeister states that the two things that most restrain evil have been the two things that are exceptionally unpopular in contemporary American culture. The first big disincentive is the cultivation of self-control. Baumeister goes so far as to say that the beginning of violence is not a question of motive but of a casting off of self-restraint. The costs and benefits inside a person's mind may tip the scale toward doing something wrong as the faster and easier way to get what one wants.
But the second disincentive to evil is bigger, guilt. Baumeister proposed in his book that Americans need to stop focusing on self-esteem as a good in itself. He pointed out that despite the emphasis on self-esteem violent crime has increased in the previous half century rather than decreased. As our culture has tended to discuss guilt and shame as bad things violence has also escalated. Baumeister offers what could be the controversial proposal that guilt does more to pre-emptively curb violence and aggression than possibly any other emotional or psychological process. Those who embrace violence may do so in part because they do something cruel and the anticipated terrible consequences simply do not arrive at that moment. From there, well, the rest is a matter of flow, you might say.
And at the risk of eluding to yet another blog post, Wenatchee proposed that the "awakening" of Eureka in the anime Eureka Seven was striking not so much because of the trope-bound "have they smiled?". Nope, the awakening was through the discovery of remorse.
Some people can't bring themselves to feel shame and that's precisely their problem, but they may convince themselves the problem is all those people out there who think they ought to be ashamed when whatever they've said or done can't have been that bad.