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The Digitisation of shame and shaming

Posted by Flux on 

12 December 2015

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Last week, two days before the opening concert of the One Direction South African tour, Zayn Malik dropped a bombshell – specifically that is, if you are female, a teenager and part of the 60 million collective social media fan base aka “directioners”. After five years of being part of one of the world’s biggest boy bands Malik announced his sudden departure with the following explanation:
I am leaving because I want to be a normal 22-year-old who is able to relax and have some private time out of the spotlight.”
His statement was followed by much wailing and gnashing of bracered teeth, not to mention a few threats of suicide thrown in for good measure (as is common protocol from an obsessive teenage fan base).

Speculation of the real reason why Malik quit the band followed quickly. Malik was holidaying in Phuket when pictures of the 22 year old (engaged to singer Perrie Edwards) hugging and holding hands with a blonde – Lauren Richardson – went viral. The social media storm resulted in Malik flying home for “crisis talks” with his fiancée, followed by his departure from the band.

Malik was, unsurprisingly, bombarded on social media, as were both his fiancée and the “Jezebel” blonde, Richardson. Fans accused Edwards of being “the Yoko Ono” of One Direction, referring to the widow of John Lennon who was also blamed for the break up of the Beatles, while insults and death threats were hurled at Richardson via twitter. Just one of the more charming tweets from a fan read: ‘WHO WANTS TO STAB LAUREN RICHARDSON??? I DO I DO I DO.

Malik responded to his 14.4 million followers with a tweet (his last at the time of writing) that read: “I’m 22 years old… I love a girl named Perrie Edwards. And there’s a lot of jealous f***s in this world. I’m sorry for what it looks like x.

In response to Malik’s departure, TIME magazine published an article bout how social media has changed pop. Entertainment journalist, Daniel D’Addario wrote that while the teen idol phenomenon has been with us for half a century, today’s stars “are dealing with an endless stream of commentary from fans who are at a tender age that encourages both high passion and little emotional modulation”, and their vitriol and venom on twitter is not for the faint hearted.

His article comes at the same as two books on public shaming in the digital era have just been published: So You’ve Been Publically Shamed by Jon Ronson (Picador), and Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool by Jennifer Jacquet (Alien Lane). Digital shame – and the perverse pleasure of digital shaming – it seems, are no longer a haphazard by-product of our social media discourse, but an established behavioural norm.

Parents deal with cyber bulling on a daily basis, but digital shame and shaming is not limited to the cyber schoolyard or the frenzied frothing of a teenage fan. Laurence Scott, writing for FT Weekend muses that Ronson’s book is “an account of how we’ve begun to use the Internet to police one another. Shame isn’t so much a feeling, as a crime scene. Everyone is a suspect; everyone is a victim”.

What Scott is alluding to is the growing trend of people being fired after being caught surreptitiously on camera, or their comments recorded, when they are blissfully unaware that they are being watched/recorded/policed, as this form of digital shaming usually takes place in a relaxed social environment. This is a step up from people being fired for tweeting or posting inappropriate comments in their personal capacity, as was the case of Justine Sacco (also interviewed in Ronson’s book) who spawned the viral hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet after her misguided tweet about AIDS and Africa.

In today’s world your online behaviour is being increasingly linked to your employer’s brand reputation: but is that fair? Scott writes that, “The idea that an employee is, in all aspects of their lives, the moral representative of their employer is a dangerous one for any worker living under the scrutiny of digital life.

In 2015, social media law finally comes of age, after a decade without boundaries or self-regulation. Some would say that it is about time that the twitter trolls were brought to book, or at least made more mindful of the hurt they dispense so casually, but there is also a danger of the pendulum swinging back too far. The pack mentality of online policing is as distasteful as the mindless behaviour of those who show their prejudice in 140 characters, or when they think they’re with like-minded individuals. Ronson quite aptly compares digital shaming to public floggings that occurred centuries ago.

Shortly after Malik announced his departure he told a friend, “I don’t want to live a life where everything I do is put on the Internet and dissected. I want to disappear for a while. I want to live a normal life. I’m going to be happier”.

I have no doubt that he will be. As he discovered, in cyberspace, no one can hear you scream.

By: Dion Chang
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About Dion Chang

Image credit: Gabe Austin

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