Naming, shaming and blaming on social media

lord-of-the-flies-originalI’ve been interested in shame and stigma for a long time, so I was looking forward to last night’s Midwinta discussion panel on ‘Naming, Shaming and Blaming on Social Media’ at Hares and Hyenas.  The convener was Lana Woolf and the panelists included commentator Clementine Ford, performer and thought-provoker Lauren Stardust, and my colleague and friend, Natalie Hendry, whose PhD research looks at how young people with mental health conditions use social media spaces.

My phone battery died just as I got to the venue, so I had to do that old-fashioned thing, what did we call it… oh yeah, ‘listening’.  I would have liked to hear more than we got to hear from Lauren and Natalie.  I would have liked to hear some initial discussion of the basic categories — the differences between experiencing the ‘moral emotions’ of guilt and shame (as opposed to self-consciousness and embarrassment) and the social practices of shaming and blaming that seek both to induce those experiences in others but also to alter their placement within a web of relationships with other people.

I found it incredibly hard to sit there and listen to someone who had vigorously bought into a twitter pile-on against me, and to resist the feeling that their discussion of principles, integrity and reflection was really an attempt at post-hoc justification of occasions when they had used their platform as a media commentator to shame others.  Much of the discussion seemed to veer towards discussion of the problematics of public feminism in the most general terms, rather than focusing on the ethics of naming, shaming, blaming, or the online social media contexts in which these practices take place.

Natalie Hendry posed incisive questions about the power relations implicated in these practices, as well as about the way so often the ethics of calling-in or calling out even quite vile behaviour is constrained by the praxis of living in particular communities and the need to consider the impact of critique on others’ relationships with us and with our targets.

Natalie also invited a discussion, right on the closing bell and just as I had to leave, about the labour that women and feminist commentators in particular seem bound to perform around calling in/out and community management.  I would argue in contemporary practices of online social blame and shame we can see users taking on this labour as well.

On the tram ride home I was reflecting on the nearly forty year history of online community.  It is a recent development that online community has arisen in spaces owned and operated by corporations; until about 15 years ago, almost all online communities were created and therefore resourced and managed by amateurs.

The tools for managing users and discussions and discord available to someone using an off-the-shelf installation of phpBB are still a million times more sophisticated than those Facebook, twitter or tumblr make available to their users, even though the network effects afforded by using these common platforms mean they are often managing much larger communities.

I think that plays a pretty key role in the way users of those spaces are resorting to what Scott Burris, writing about the ethics of public health intervention, has called ‘barbaric’ practices of social governance. To de-racialise that critique, he’s simply observing they are among the oldest of all our social technologies — that is to say, techniques for managing the problems and challenges of regular interaction with others.

Precisely because the spaces don’t afford more sophisticated tools, I think users are resorting to naming, blaming and shaming not just to discourage attitudes and practices they dislike but also with the goal of establishing norms and conventions for interaction in spaces where the absence of such norms makes us anxious.

On the occasion when I was publicly shamed by the panelist, I’d tagged a different columnist I used to chat with on twitter in my tweet of an article of hers, saying I’d enjoyed it but found it a bit muddled.  Another aspiring columnist saw this, didn’t know my relationship with the writer and rode in to her defence, attacking me for ‘atting’ the author — including her handle  in a tweet that didn’t really invite a conversation with her.

I’d actually reflected on how to word the tweet and whether to include her handle and I obviously got it wrong and apologised immediately, but the aspiring columnist continued to stir up a pile-on that eventually included last night’s panelist, at which point I deactivated my twitter account.

The interesting thing about that experience was the way the effort at shaming arose in the zone of contradiction between an existing norm against subtweeting — talking about someone or their work without including their handle — and an emerging norm among columnists against ‘atting’ — including someone’s handle unless you really want them to respond.

Although the aspiring columnist didn’t have a byline worth a damn to her name at that point, policing the norm against ‘atting’ may have reinforced her (more self- than social) identification as a columnist, an insider in an interpretive community who was communicatively competent to invoke shame in a ritual manner against an outsider.

This was a neat little illustration of the Girardian sacrifice as the origin of language and the sacred, i.e. the law, and its mimetic re-enactment on a daily basis in modernday human communities.  Overcoming it is not a matter of changing human nature or calling people to their better selves — it’s a question of technologies of social governance and altering the power relations that currently structure us into identity-based hierarchies and out-groups.