It was all fun and games when people were just complaining about airlines. You still can't look at Twitter without seeing at least one person complaining about a travel delay or bad customer service: "Damn you, Delta, how could you do this to me? Don't you know who I AM?!" And one of my all-time favorite viral YouTube videos is "United Breaks Guitars" in which a passenger sings about United breaking his guitar when he flew on their airline. It's so famous that it became a book.
Even when the trend expanded to "shaming" others, it was still kind of adorable when it came in the form of "baby-shaming" and "puppy-shaming," where people would hang a little sign around their dog's neck that said "I just peed on the rug" or put a sign next to their baby that says "I threw pasta on the carpet" and post a photo to Facebook.
Then, it got a little meaner. Around the holidays, you'd see blogs dedicated to "tacky Christmas lights" where people could upload photos of their neighbors' inflatable Santas. But still, shaming someone's house is still all in good fun, right? Unless it's your house, I guess.
And then, we all just descended into complete Internet troll-dom. Perez Hilton became famous for finding pictures of celebrities and writing little mean captions onto the photos. There's now a blog dedicated to every kind of shaming, such as Tumblr accounts devoted to unflattering photos of people at Wal-Mart, or a Twitter account (@NeedADebitCard) that re-tweets people who post pictures of their debit card on Twitter.
Many universities now have anonymous Twitter feeds dedicated to "passouts" where students tweet photos of their classmates passed out drunk. Which means those college memories are now Google cached forever.
There's been a lot of talk lately about "slut-shaming blogs" where people take photos of women who they feel are wearing inappropriate attire and post them online, sometimes even without blurring out the women's faces. Many blogs take "selfies" that women post online and ruthlessly criticize them. Some schools have even had to ban phones in school locker rooms after kids were caught snapping photos of their classmates changing and uploading the pictures online, to be mocked. The majority of these people probably had no idea they were committing some slight societal faux pas, and how could they? Instead of explaining to them what they did wrong, we were busy snapping a pic.
And now, it's getting to the point where it's costing people their jobs.
A few months ago, a girl named Lindsey Stone posted a photo of herself with her middle finger up at Arlington National Cemetery. Bad taste? Yes. Worth losing her job over? Probably not. However, an angry group launched a "Fire Lindsay Stone" Facebook Page, started a Change.org petition, and harassed her employer publicly until they let her go.
And earlier this month, at a tech conference in San Francisco, a woman overheard two guys behind her making semi-sexual jokes. She turned around in her seat, snapped a photo of them, and Tweeted out the picture, alongside their comment about "big dongles." One of the guys was wearing a visible nametag, and because of her post, he was fired from his job. Days later, the woman was fired from her job as well.
And that's the world we live in. One tweet, one photo, or one blog post is now all it takes for people to lose their jobs, their reputations, and their credibility.
So, what's the takeaway?
We've all done it. I know I've pretended to take a photo of my husband in order to capture the person behind him in a ridiculous T-shirt. It's so easy to do, and hey, you're probably guaranteed a few retweets.
But if you see something done that you don't like, and you talk to the offender privately about it, then you're giving the gift of a second chance. Maybe they didn't know they were offending you with their see-through pants or blow-up snow globe - and you've now opened their eyes to it!
When you immediately take someone's behavior, outfit, or personal tastes public, you're telling them that you don't think they deserve a second chance. Personally, I think most people, unless they've committed a truly heinous crime, deserve a second chance. Probably even a third.
Shame can be a powerful force in society. I know that when I want to hold myself accountable for doing something, I'll often post about it on social media because I WANT the motivation of the shame that will come if I don't live up to my goal. There are even apps that you can download to help shame you, such as "Gym Shamer" (an app that will broadcast to all your friends on Facebook if you don't go to the gym) or "Shame Alarm" (an app that tells everyone when you hit the snooze button and decide to sleep in).
But those are all services we choose to download and use. When people don't know they're being watched, or judged, then the only purpose of shaming is to make people feel horrible about themselves. Which is just another form of bullying.
Maybe in a world where everyone is a critic, we all just need to toughen up a bit and grow thicker skin? But I feel like that's not quite the answer, either. What we need are better unspoken social rules and etiquette around this sort of thing, so we can navigate the gray areas together. I think we can all agree that a quick laugh at a funny photo is not worth hurting someone's feelings.
We all have so much power at the tips of our fingers. Let's use it wisely and tactfully.
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