Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
While society no longer puts citizens in stocks or pillories, social media is the new town square where you can be publicly humiliated–or humiliate yourself.
In You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, author Jon Ronson contends that the powerless can feel empowered by social media. His concern is that Twitter, Facebook, even Instagram, can seem like safe havens, but we shouldn’t be so blithe about the potential repercussions of presenting ourselves without filters.
Recently I watched an interview with Ronson on the “PBS News Hour,” which you can see here. As he points out, social media is a place of high drama. That’s why scrolling through your Facebook wall can leave you exhausted, as you ride an emotional roller coaster: someone’s birthday is celebrated (yea!); someone is recounting her latest round of chemo treatments (sad! but hopeful!); a baby is born (yea!); a death is announced (very sad!); a cute puppy photo (ah!); a silly saying (laugh!)…on and on it goes. And the announcements usually are accompanied by photos, which add to their emotional impact on us.
But sometimes the high drama goes awry. Ronson shared a few examples of people who were, in his word, “mangled” via social media.
- One woman became a Twitter sensation when she tweeted from a plane that she was about to take off for Africa. She hoped she wouldn’t get AIDS. Then added: “Just joking. I’m white.”
By the time her plane landed in Africa, a Twitter campaign against her had caused her to lose her job. By the way, she had just over one hundred Twitter followers.
Sometimes our shameful behavior is recorded on social media.
- At a convention, a man told the guy sitting next to him in an auditorium a sexist joke. The woman sitting in front of them decided they deserved to be shamed. So she snapped their photo and tweeted that they were so sexist they used certain words (which she repeated) in a joke.
The result? The two men lost their jobs–and then, when the Twitter universe found out, it turned on her and destroyed her reputation as well. Just desserts?
- A woman had a friend snap a shot of her at Arlington Cemetery giving “the finger” to a sign that asked for the public to remain silent and respectful. She thought she was being funny when she posted it on social media.
She, too, lost her job.
To those of us who are self-employed, all this job loss sounds sad but nonthreatening. Still, authors are public figures. We work hard to build our social media viewership. Personally, I’m sobered to think that each example Ronson gave in the interview shows how putting up something on social media can be misunderstood or manhandled by another person who takes it in a way you never intended. Or “outs” you on social media for behaving in a way you wouldn’t want to make public. None of these individuals set out to post something controversial.
By the way, when I started to write this post, I decided to use the stocks and pillory examples because we associate them with antiquated ways of inflicting humiliation. But, as I did a brief search on the Internet about each of them, I was appalled to learn that the punishment went beyond shaming or having some produce tossed your way by offended neighbors. Often those pilloried had their ears nailed to the board so they couldn’t move their heads when people threw mud, rotten food–or stones–at them. Once the offending parties’ time in the pillory was over, their ears were cut off. They were marked for life–if they survived the punishment. Those placed in stocks also were severely abused by the townspeople and didn’t always survive the experience. So when we use the phrase laughingstock, it is no laughing matter.
Nor is the way people can be punished–deservedly or not–on social media.
What’s the takeaway for each of us?
- Always apply your social media filter to anything you put on the Internet. Ask yourself if it’s possible for someone to misunderstand the tone with which you intend your posting to be read. Not everyone will think of you as a witty fellow but rather as a nitwit.
- Steer clear of material that is political in nature unless you write about pop culture or societal issues. Don’t assume everyone following you on social media belongs to the same political party you do or shares your opinions.
- Be cautious when using sarcasm. Always assume at least one person won’t get it. Are you okay with that?
- If you are called out for posting something that offended an individual, apologize for causing offense, which wasn’t your intention.
- Take down ugly, over-the-top responses to your post, if you can. But don’t be afraid to let a little heat develop (if you can take it) because that will increase social media exposure. Just remember, it can get out of hand if you don’t monitor carefully. The saying, “All publicity is good publicity” doesn’t always apply.
- Don’t be mean yourself. Social media makes us feel anonymous and act as if the person we’re cutting down isn’t a real individual. Hello! We are all real behind our social media presence! Don’t write anything you wouldn’t say to a person’s face.
- Ask yourself if you’re over-sharing. Never announce the specifics of how your book is selling (until you reach 500,000 copies, or some other exclamation-worthy mark), especially if sales are disappointing. Nor should you share details of your most recent book contract (you’re probably prohibited from doing so in your contract). Don’t offer the specifics of how the flu is ravaging your body. Don’t post graphic photos of a violent scene. (Yes, I’ve seen all of the above on social media.)
- Don’t believe everything you read. I once observed a heated battle between two agents take place on Facebook. Agent A, in an attempt to publicly shame another agent, accused Agent B of poaching (stealing clients–a major no-no among agents). Agent B responded by expressing grievous hurt to be so accused and hurled back accusations about Agent A. It was ugly. But even worse, clients for each agent took to commenting, vigorously defending their agent. That was even uglier. Where did the truth lie in all of this? My guess is only the two agents knew. Don’t add fuel to fires that never should have been built in the first place, especially if you don’t know the facts.
As you read this post, what instances of social media excess you’ve seen came to mind? Did you recall a time you were misunderstood? or came under attack undeservedly? If so, how did you deal with it?
Social media: the new public shaming forum. Click to tweet.
How to avoid being humiliated–or worse–on social media. Click to tweet.