Internet shaming is a symptom, not a disease

Social media shaming is bullying

If I see another woebegone think piece about the horrors of “internet shaming” I’m going to spew burrito chunks. They are all just so saccharine, and can be summed up in a handful of buzzwords each:

From PBS: Mob mentality. Immaturity. Mangled Lives. “A call for people to be more empathetic.”

From Wired: Weapon of mass reputation destruction. Bullying.  “Real life consequences.”

From Slate: Moral norms. Due process. Herd mentality. Humiliation.

From CNN: Forgiveness. Second chances. Mob mentality. Bullies.  “Kindness and compassion works.”

From HuffPo: Amateurization of media. Bullying. Villainizing. Destruction.

Yawn. Not only are these articles tedious in their moralistic cluck-clucking, they spend very little time trying to root out the real source of the problem.

“Why can’t everyone just be nice? Huh?”

On the other hand, there was a Salon article that called out these “why can’t everyone just be nice?” hand-wringers, but regrettably it then wags the dog in the other direction: Online shaming is good! Because social justice something or whatever.

The heart and soul of that article lies in this staggering drunk of a sentence:

“Any move to make the world a more empathetic place is a welcome one, but use too broad a stroke to paint people’s anger as unproductive “shaming,” and you wind up abnegating your responsibilities as a person in the world in service of not feeling uncomfortable about potentially fucking up.”

Translation: Mobs are awesome, because to be a good person in the world you need to make sure you punish people for making mistakes.

Put a mental bookmark in that idea. I’ll come back to it in a bit.

*      *      *      *      *

Excel spreadsheets and Microsoft Access databases. That’s what I think of when I see internet shaming. (Bear with my analogy please, it will make sense in a moment.)

I see the phenomenon all the time. It happens in large companies with expensive IT departments that, simply put, have too much damn bureaucracy. Department managers in sales, finance or operations request some kind of tool or automation to help with their workflow, and their IT department either says that it’s not a high enough priority, or they say it is so far down in the work queue that it will take months to complete.

But the department managers need to do their jobs. They need something to help them now. So what happens? They find a talented person with moderate programming skills within their own ranks, and they get the job done with a home-grown Excel spreadsheet or Access database.

The people who work in IT bemoan these rogue solutions–shadow IT, stealth IT–as misbehavior. Usually the solutions built this way are not tested, are poorly constructed, and have never been demonstrated to give the results they are supposed to give. Moreover, when they break, IT is more often than not called in to clean up the mess.

But here is the dirty truth that IT departments don’t want to admit: shadow IT solutions happen because the regular IT department is broken.

Business units in a large corporation don’t create ad hoc spreadsheets and Access databases because they enjoy it. They create “rogue solutions” because IT isn’t doing the job it’s supposed to do.

The existence of inefficient “home grown” technical solutions scattered throughout an organization isn’t something to either scold (for not adhering to standards) or to applaud (for being innovative).

It is a symptom. It’s a sign that IT isn’t performing the function it is supposed to perform.

* * * * *

Back to internet shaming. Some people have argued that social media mobbing is a symptom of the internet age. Others believe it is just a symptom of basic human psychology. These factors may play a role, but I think there is a much deeper root cause: the repeated utter failures of our justice system.

Just look around at the news. A black kid is murdered under mysterious and suspicious circumstances by a white cop in a city with a history of racial tensions. No official fault was found. A black woman dies in jail after a false arrest in one of the most racist counties in Texas. No official fault was found. Women come forward en masse to describe being sexually molested by Bill Cosby. No official fault was found.

Nobody knows what to do. They can’t bring back the dead; they can’t undo the harm. All they know is that whatever machinery is supposed to be in place to deliver justice of some kind is simply not doing its job.

So, people do the only thing that they have in their power to do: social media shaming.

Remember the core argument from that Salon article: it is your responsibility to get mad at injustice, and to act on that anger. That argument only makes sense if you feel in your heart that the system is broken, and your own anger is the only way to bring justice into the world. In a world where “the system” actually doles out justice the way that it should, the onus of punishing bad behavior wouldn’t fall to people on social media.

This is a classic response from people who feel powerless in a system that is broken. We saw physical riots in the streets in Ferguson because (in part) the citizens there knew in their hearts that the official law enforcement was not there for them, and would not give them justice. Physical riots were the angry cry of powerless people trying to do something when the official system would not.

Social media has become the stage for verbal, virtual riots for exactly the same reason. And until the underlying source of the problem–the broken official justice system–is fixed, the “rogue solution” of internet shaming will only get worse.



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  1. quack quack quack says:

    Good job really informative and entertaining to read. I like the analogy with technology and people making up their own solutions to problems. That totally makes sense people get pissed off at the system so now Twitter has become the new “get something done”

  2. JFL046223 says:

    I like your tone in this one a little more relaxed less like an essay 🙂 🙂

  3. Derek says:

    Another great article, Greg. Good job

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