Shame Spiral

I think sometimes about how the same eagerness with which we share “interesting” articles on the web also leads us to shame, destruct, and otherwise terrorize fellow humans on the internet. There is this shame spiral, and on one end is our pleasure in connectivity, in reading a think-piece that gels with our worldview, and on the other are our impulses (fully realized) toward alienation, i.e., look at what this horrible person has posted or tweeted and, come on, gang, let’s destroy him/her. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I wonder about what can be said, chemically speaking, of the uneven space between our uniting to uplift and our uniting to disparage and condemn. The pleasure spiral toes both lines.

In the spirit of “sharing” online, I wanted to highlight a recent article, “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life” (I kind of love the headline, as it seems to riff on the cringeworthy clickbait parlayed so often nowadays). It’s an excerpt from a forthcoming book by author Jon Ronson called, fittingly, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. In the essay, Ronson details the now-famous online shaming of former corporate communications maven Justine Sacco. On her way to visit family in South Africa, Sacco fired off a series of seemingly innocuous tweets, and then a not-so-innocuous one that sealed her internet fate as she flew, unknowing, across the continents. Ronson relays the series of events that mobilized the tweeting public into a sham[ing] spiral, as hashtags like “#HasJustineLandedYet” reveled in anticipatory destructive glee. And it was destructive: it seemed the entire world, or at least the contingent of active tweeters, rallied against her; news outlets proclaimed their disgust; Sacco was ultimately fired from her high-profile job. And then Ronson, as part of a larger-scale project in which he interviewed other victims of online shaming, eventually met Sacco and talked to her over the course of several months. He differentiates her earlier responses (defensive, corrective, apologetic, shocked) from later ones, when she refuses to disclose information about her current situation. In a conscientious move, she denies her casting as victim: “Anything that puts the spotlight on me is a negative,” she says. 

Embedded in this story is the common knowledge that it’s easier to position someone or something as the enemy and then bludgeon him/her/it repeatedly, either in tweets or think-pieces, when you haven’t met him or her in person, or engaged on a personal level. Ronson affirms this; he writes that he made an effort to interview the shaming victims included in his book project in-person, whenever possible. These are the conversations, presumably, where nuance becomes possible. In a lot of ways, despite Twitter’s democratic reach, I think the medium is best at mass-mobilization—which, even if geared toward stretching visibility around a certain topic, cause, or campaign, can also shut out space for ambivalence. I can think of several times I took to Twitter or Facebook, dissatisfied with what I perceived to be an over-simplified channeling of an issue or viewpoint; I’d type, sometimes hit “send,” and then sit in full-body-pulsing fear of not saying it exactly right, not issuing enough eloquence in my challenge so as to make a mark. Because despite its 140-character limit, Twitter is hardly a flippant medium. As Ronson’s piece illustrates, the stakes feel higher and higher on both sides of that spiral: to pioneer a ‘new’ viewpoint around which the masses can congregate (religious imagery not intended here), either for ‘better’ or for ‘worse,’ becomes the objective. The ethics here get murkier and murkier: how do we speak out at all, and to what end? Who do we consider, and not consider, either in our line of fire or in our line of solidarity? Ronson’s piece doesn’t offer answers, necessarily, but it does speak out, in a way; it outlines these dilemmas and some of their consequences.