Stranger-shaming and the Illusion of Victimless Humor Online
 

Recently, a Facebook acquaintance posted a picture of a man sleeping on a bus. The caption invited her Facebook fans to share in the humor of the moment she’d captured on the sly.

Look at this man. He’s sleeping. On a bus. Oh, the hilarity.

And when I looked at this picture, searching for the punchline, I saw only a man with graying hair, head lolled to the side, a protruding belly, one pant leg half-tucked into a sock, and a security badge hanging from a lanyard around his neck.

I saw a story: an overworked father, or grandfather, making his daily commute to the office, catching up on some sleep he hadn’t been able to find in bed. He probably hadn’t considered that a stranger would take his picture and post it on the most public platform on the Internet, and I felt violated for him.

I will admit right now that People of Walmart has made me laugh. A lot. But I had an epiphany when I saw this nameless man’s picture on Facebook. It was as if the proverbial veil had been lifted and instead of a punchline, I saw a human being.

The Dehumanizing Power of the Internet

Jimmy Kimmel has a segment on his late show called Celebrities Read Mean Tweets, where celebrities get to respond to the insults they receive over Twitter and viewers get to see the human consequences of those words.

It’s a simple, but important lesson.

Here we sit behind our keyboards, connected to a vast and ever-growing world of information: .gifs, memes, shopping carts, opinions, and ideas. All of us are simultaneously consumers and producers in this surging flow of content, and all of it is accessible (and deliverable) with a few clicks and keystrokes.

The only thing that stands between us and that content is our monitors, but ask any victim of cyber-bullying and they’ll tell you that a monitor offers flimsy protection from the words and images illuminated on a screen. What is at once intangible and abstract on one end is also profoundly real to those targeted for humiliation online.

The Internet has a strange ability to distort reality, and that surrealism creates a disconnect that fosters a breeding ground for insensitivity, irresponsibility, and even cruelty.

The Time Reddit Learned this Lesson

In 2012, a Reddit user snuck a photo of a peer on a university campus. This peer was a Sikh woman who, in accordance with her faith, had chosen not to alter her body in any way that could be associated with vanity, and as a result had a beard, mustache, and sideburns. Otherwise, she was obviously female and the Redditor’s caption stated, “I’m not sure what to conclude from this.”

Lost in his quest for up-votes and karma, the last thing this particular Redditor expected was for his post to receive a response from the subject herself. But he did, and it was profound.

In an outpouring of goodwill, the woman, Balpreet Kaur (wait, people in Internet photos have names?), explained the nature of her faith and even apologized for causing confusion.

Still more incredibly, in a rare glimpse of genuine human interaction via the Internet, the original poster responded with a contrite, thorough apology. For this Redditor, the blinders were forcibly removed in a way that, hopefully, have changed his views on stranger-shaming for good.

Myth: Only Truly Mean People Stranger-Shame

Let me be completely clear: the picture that was posted of the sleepy commuter on Facebook, and even the picture of Balpreet, aren’t, in my opinion, in the same classification with trolling and cyberbullying. Trolls and bullies have found their element in the perceived lack of responsibility and consequences that the Internet engenders, and they thrive in the vitriol. They seek out specific targets, fascinated by the power of their words, and they wield that power like kids with guns.

But it all comes from the same place of irresponsibility. The rest of us are simply entranced by the illusion of victimless humor rather than exultant in it. We want to spread a few harmless laughs, gain some up-votes, likes, and favorites, and ultimately contribute to the content online, even at the occasional expense of others.

That’s all my Facebook friend was trying to do with her post, but it elicited mocking comments almost immediately, revealing the true nature of the post itself, whatever her original intentions. So what are the actual arguments for stranger-shaming?

Advice from the Internet: When Outnumbered, Become a Part of the Problem

“The person in my picture is never going to know about it anyway.”

Like Balpreet?

“No harm was actually intended, so why make a fuss?”

You just facilitated the public humiliation of another human being. No one is escaping this situation unscathed.

“People are too sensitive. Grow some thicker skin.”

The world would be a better place, indeed.

“No one in existence today should have any expectation of privacy anyway. Deal with it.”

So let’s go ahead and become a part of the problem.

These sentiments are pretty common online; they’re part of the illusion. They’re the reason why we’re abandoning responsibility for our words and actions when we’re connected to the Internet. And because disagreeing is a lost cause, we might as well get on board, right?

The problem is this: life is lived offline, but so many of us, starting at a progressively younger age, go to the Internet for mental and social conditioning. It’s already affecting our day-to-day behaviors. Think about it. How have your interactions online already translated to your offline life?

Do you take Instagram pictures of your meals before you eat them? When something funny, scary, sad, or embarrassing happens to you, how long do you wait to talk about it on Facebook? Have you ever had dinner with someone you’d met on a dating site? When you fight with a complete stranger on a discussion forum, are you still fuming about it when you go to bed?

Finally, have you ever gone to the Internet for validation? Of course you have. Because likes, down-votes, up-votes, karma, favorites, nudges, winks, pokes, emoticons–they are all real to us, as real as a pat on the back, kiss on the cheek, or slap in the face.

The fact is, who we are online translates to who we are offline. If you’re not the type of person to publicly mock a complete stranger in any other setting, why would you do it on the Internet?

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