Shame Is the New Black

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Photo: Corbis

Rates of religious affiliation in America are dropping to historic lows, but you’d hardly know it from the Internet, where religion’s handmaiden, shame, is the law of the land. Less than two weeks into 2013, it’s clear that the little moment “Internet vigilante shame” had in 2012 was only the beginning. In an age when deeds and identities are linked on social media, public shaming is not just the stuff of vigilantism. It's how we entertain ourselves, how we debate social norms, and how we advertise.

Slut-shaming, for one, is going strong. In 2012, you may have been slut-shamed by Rush Limbaugh; in 2013, you may be slut-shamed by Tumblr, says BuzzFeed. There, a mean-girl-on-girl meme called “Girls, Did You Know ... ” is going around, encouraging young women to cover their breasts. (So is a counter-meme, to shame the slut-shamers.) Meanwhile, a “Radio Rookie” report on NPR outlines how the exes and frenemies of teenagers (girls, mostly) are posting explicit photos and videos of them online, taking slut-shaming to cyber-bullying heights. One victim hoped her video scandal would quickly blow over, until she was called into the principal’s office. “I couldn't even look at my mother because I felt hurt and I also felt that I disrespected her,’ she told NPR. “I didn't want kids in the school to look at my mother and be like, ‘Wow, she raised nothing.’”

Theoretically, the permanent Internet record that makes online bullying and slut-shaming so painful should be a gift to law enforcement. This generation of young Hunter Moores seems destined for child pornography charges and lifetimes of sex offender registry shame.

Slut-shaming on social media furnished plenty of hearsay evidence in the rape of a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio — not that it’s been much use. The high schoolers reportedly destroyed most of the video and photo evidence, despite local blogger Alexandria Goddard's best effort to capture it all. Though prosecutors are having trouble getting witnesses to testify in the close-knit football town, the shame campaign spearheaded by Anonymous groups LocalLeaks and KnightSec has taken material teenagers apparently created to slut-shame an assault victim and turned it into an alternative form of justice for alleged bystanders. One young man, shown laughing about the crime in a twelve-minute video that Anonymous leaked, was forced to drop out of Ohio State University, according to the Daily BeastThe Atlantic Wire reports that another Steubenville football player's Kent State University scholarship is under review.

The shame of sin gets Catholics to confession; on the Internet, social media confessions beget shaming. This may be a generational thing. The essential twentysomething voice identified by Nathan Heller in the New Yorker — “early mastery without mature constraint, self-discovery at a moment when each revelation seems unique” — is only magnified by Instagram and Twitter apps for iPhone. But web-based journalists at BuzzFeed and Gawker Media treat these revelation-dense social media accounts like sources, everymen and women on the street with the reporter’s tape recorder constantly in their faces. With a search function to sort the thousands of tweets uploaded every second by more than 100 million users, a blogger can quickly implicate a person (or her Twitter or Instagram avatar) in a hamfisted social trend — economic illiteracy, bratty first-world greed, brazen drug tolerance, racist hate speech — although at times it’s hard to tell whether the people are being shamed or celebrated. Advertisers are following suit. Taking a cue from BuzzFeed’s content producers, HBO presents “15 Instagrams that GIRLS will surely regret,” a sponsored shaming.

Public shaming can be pulled from the old media playbook, too. Gawker has taken after the Journal News, which published the names and addresses of area handgun-owners in the wake of the Newtown massacre, leading to such outrage that the newspaper had to bring in armed guards. Gawker’s version didn’t include the gun license-holders' addresses, taking the bite out of a gesture meant to interrogate the nature of safety, and leaving some gun-control advocates puzzling after a motive or message. If not for shame, then why?

It’s not hard to see how the results of Internet shame campaigns can be illuminating. Look at how widespread and how casual racism remains! Shouldn't these young people learn how unacceptable this hate speech is? But the logic feels uncomfortably similar to the slut-shamers and victim-blamers in Steubenville, who allege that the victim invited and even consented to the attacks — “asked for it” — by going to a party alone, drinking, or posting provocative pictures on Twitter. Likewise, if hick racists don’t want their hideous views broadcast to Jezebel’s millions of readers, the thinking goes, they should have made their accounts private. How much of the new shame is simply a reflection of an emerging power dynamic — web-savvy bloggers (or hacktivists, or amateur pornographers) capitalizing on others’ digitally illiterate compulsion to divulge?

It may be a growing pain of the web’s adolescent period, one foot in the old, anonymous, wild Internet, the other foot in a future singularity where "real" and Internet life are seamless. Until then, our best bet may be SnapChat, the app that allows users to send photos that will delete themselves after a set period of time — self-disclosure with a self-destruct button. All the kids are doing it.