Internet Public Shaming

I laughed at this when I saw it: “Girl quits her job on dry erase board, emails entire office (33 Photos).” In it, you’ll see a woman holding a small dry erase board with messages. She quits her job, and describes what a loser her boss “Spencer” is. Among other things, she accidentally overheard him calling her a “HOPA” (hot piece of a**). This is her revenge. Since Spencer installed monitoring software on everyone’s computers to see if they’re wasting time (and she as his assistant has the passwords), she outed him for being on non-work related sites a lot –including being on Farmville 19.7 hours a week.

My first reaction was amusement. She seems pretty cool. A bit like Heather Armstrong of Dooce–everyone’s hip friend with attitude. Then I thought, wait, I bet Spencer just has Farmville running in the background–he can’t be playing that many hours a week. And why is his bad breath really relevant here? And isn’t this all horribly mean? OK, he sounds like an annoying boss. Maybe even a chauvinist pig. But is public shaming the right answer?

Of course my next thought was, I wonder if this is real or just performance art. But either way, it’s part of a disturbing trend–the self righteous using the Internet to do more harm than good while “righting wrongs.” Clay Shirky wrote about this in his book “Here Comes Everybody.” And as he points out, the phenomenon of using the Internet for public shaming is particularly intense in Asian countries, where the “human flesh search engine” can track people down and ruin their lives. OK, the girl on the subway in Korea should have cleaned up after her dog–no question about it. But did she deserve to be turned into a pariah? Wikipedia tracks similar incidents in its article on Internet vigilantism.

The good news is, this medium gives formerly dis-empowered people a voice. Instead of just quitting and slinking off, White-Board Girl has a recourse. Instead of just getting angry as you slip in dog poo on the subway car, you can collaborate to identify the inconsiderate dog owner. But the problem is that the response is out of proportion to the crime, especially when you consider that the Internet is a largely archival medium. (An old cliché says taking information off of the Internet is like taking pee out of a pool.) So Puppy Poo Girl and Spencer will have their judgment lapses follow them potentially indefinetely. And that seems a bit too much–approaching Nathaniel Hawthorne’s scarlet A or Neal Stephenson’s tattoos that say “poor impulse control.”

Addendum:

WhiteBoard Girl (or “Jenny DryErase”) is indeed a hoax. Which is fortunate for the Spencers of the world, real or imagined!

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  1. christopher femmenino
    August 25, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    elyse porterfield was my real-life personal assistant…she never told me she was quitting and it was a surprise to see her on the dry-erase thingie! so there is some truth to the ‘hoax’. especially since she flaunted our professional relationship all over the place here and now people think I’m some sexist jerk that lives for farmville.

  2. October 4, 2010 at 10:19 am

    Also: the person being accused doesn’t get to speak up for him/herself. Once it’s out on the internet, everyone just assumes it’s true. It is taken completely out of context, because none of the internet audience who judges that person even knows the situation or people behind it. They take everything at face value based on that one video or picture or whatnot. Perhaps she was vindictive because of some other reason. We will never know.

  3. Keith
    December 27, 2010 at 11:24 pm

    Our mistakes and bad judgements do seem to take on a longer and more public life on the Internet. I hope that one side effect is that we will become more understanding and forgive those who once trespassed, just as we’d hope for them to forgive us our own trespasses.

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