When Internet archaelogists look back at 2012 and talk about fleeting micro-cottage industries on the Web — GIFs! — the one that’ll have inevitably stuck is our own current form of Twitter archaeology, unearthing and displaying the worst of humanity in very near real time.
Here’s how it works: A thing happens. Say, a black president is reelected. People react, many on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks to the sheer, quaking scale of these networks — a billion and 160 million users, respectively — inevitably some slice of that vast chunk of humanity says deeply stupid or aggressively awful things. Websites (like BuzzFeed!) collect and exhibit these stunning little snippets of speech. Internet audiences gather to mock and shame. Wash, rinse, repeat.
The politics of social-media shaming might seem complex, but they’re remarkably simple: When people say things out loud that the public has collectively — or like, a lot of it, anyway — agreed are offensive, hurtful, or stupid, it’s within the purview of the public to retort, to challenge, and to chasten. That’s the one price of creating public speech: When you open your (metaphorical) mouth and project things into the public sphere, you are inviting the public to say something back. And Facebook updates, tweets, and Tumblr posts, unless they’re locked behind a private account, are public speech.
There’s counterargument to this, but it’s wholly incorrect:
Users have a right to know what is happening with their communication, and they don’t have to participate in surveys, research, or even in media articles if they don’t want to. Sometimes communication between friends really is just communication between friends. Collecting their data could even be a copyright violation.
While online identity over the last several years has been marked by the steady application of real names and real faces to previously anonymous personas in more and more places on the Web — this is not news, whether you’re 12 or 72 — there does seem to have been a shift in the last year or so in which not only are real people tied to the things that they say and do online, but they’re responsible for them. And it’s this application of moral weight to previously amoral spaces that’s behind the rise of name-and-shame posting and the “doxxing” of the Web’s most notorious trolls, like Michael Brutsch and Shashank Tripathi. You might be able to say and do these things anonymously, but increasingly, you incur the risk that you will be exposed.
This was inevitable: You start using real names and making real people out of bits, then all of the other things we deal with as people in the real world naturally begin to seep into the online world as well — like moral sensibilities. Now that the Internet is less and less a distinct, separate space from the rest of our lives — at least for most of us, it’s just how we live — the consensus is rapidly crystalizing that the rules and sensibilities of the rest of our lives should largely apply online as well. This is simply where we are in 2012.
After all, why should this woman be allowed to be violently offensive and hopelessly ignorant, just because she’s doing so on the Internet? If there is no shame in what she posted, why delete the post? Or an entire social media presence, as many of the people featured in the post have? We’ve decided these people largely don’t belong in public life in the real world, so why should we tolerate them on the Internet?
The question, then, isn’t whether websites and the online public should be allowed to name and shame the most virulently racist and sexist amongst us — answer: a clear, unambiguous yes — but how far they should go in exacting moral rectitude. It’s simply a matter of taste. For instance, we removed four of the accounts that tweeted about assassinating the president from this post upon request, but I don’t think we were under any obligation to do so. For contrast, there’s Jezebel’s envelope-pushing expose of teenagers who said racist things about the president: Jezebel didn’t simply round up and display their tweets for the rhetorical public beating they deserved, the post’s author tracked down the students and reported them to school administrators.
This is the kind of thing that Gawker Media excels at — taking something that’s only recently acceptable and torquing it just enough to push the boundaries of taste, precisely to expose how fragile those boundaries are. In this case, by focusing exclusively on minors and by exacting consequences in the real world for racist online speech. It reeks of stunt vigilantism — largely because it is — but the fact remains that these students, using their real names and real faces, intentionally said deeply offensive things in public. It’s no different than if they had stood in a public park holding up a sign as TV cameras rolled by — that’s essentially what Twitter is, as a written record. And there are consequences for thinking and saying these kinds of things, particularly in a society that is increasingly liberal. (What I would’ve done if I had written that post: told the kids’ parents, not the school.)
There is perhaps a kind of magical thinking happening here that should be corrected: Teenagers are more keenly aware than anybody how the Internet works, particularly amongst their own social circles, but in the tweets highlighted by Jezebel there is a strange sense that whatever they say lacks any sense of real consequence because it’s the Internet. Which is a typical teenage behavior in a sense — you understand a lot of things, just not consequences. But asking everyone to persistently pretend this stuff doesn’t exist doesn’t only ignore how the Internet works, it ignores a greater sense of how the world should be, where these things don’t belong. Also, focusing exclusively on the minors question makes us lose sight of the broader point: Racism and sexism shouldn’t be left alone simply because they’re occurring inside of a chat bubble.
The Internet is real. More real than it’s ever been, in a sense. And when you say things on the Internet now, they carry real weight and meaning. That evolution is a good thing, mostly. But reality has a price, and it is consequence. If you didn’t know that already, you should now.