Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Against Internet Pile-ons

One of the things I missed while I was away was the chance to comment in a timely fashion on this interesting piece by Ken at Popehat on the ethics of making people 'internet famous', as he puts it. I generally agree with a lot of what Ken writes about, so it's interesting when I find myself disagreeing on something.

Let me start with the opening part of Ken's post, and then jump around a bit:
For some time, I've been thinking and writing about this question: is it "fair," and "right," that if I act like a sufficiently notable choad on the internet, I may become instantly famous for it, and the consequences of that fame may follow me and have profound social implications?
I keep coming back to two answers: (1) yes, and (2) to quote Clint,deserve's got nothing to do with it.
Obviously the answer is going to depend on exactly what you did in the first place. But usually, what sort of things make somebody become 'internet famous'? Usually it's something like the following:
-Making a racist remark or video
-Saying something particularly mean or off-colour
-Writing an obtuse and inadvertantly funny email

In general, does that deserve having a lot of nasty web posts come up whenever someone googles your name?

Punishments can be fair in one of two ways.

The first is that the punishment is fair to that individual. Given John Smith did XYZ, is it fair to John Smith personally that he suffers the consequences?

The second is that the punishment is fair given the overall scale of the bad behavior that society is trying to deter and the overall costs of punishment.

To see the difference, think about medieval punishments for theft and highway robbery. The punishment for these was incredibly severe, and harsher than for a lot of other more gruesome crimes. But why? Getting robbed isn't that bad in the scheme of things.

The reason is the lack of enforcement. It was very difficult to catch highway robbers. Hence, when the King did catch one, he had to do horrible things to make an example out of them. This was the only way he could hope to deter crime, without a police force to do it for him. The individual punishment for that robber was surely not fair, but the overall social aim may have been worth it (or not. But it's not an indefensible proposition).

In the case of the generic 'guy acting like an @$$hole' and getting a whole ton of nasty internet posts, I think it's very rare that the actions are fair to him personally.

Ken disagrees:
Some people worry that the result is unduly harsh or unfair — that anyone can become a pariah because of "one mistake." I'm all for the concept of mercy, but I think that concern is misguided for a number of reasons. First and most importantly, the internet is manic and has a short attention span. You have to do something truly epic to go viral. One angry email won't do it unless it is so extreme that it reflects a disturbed mind. If you "just have a bad day," you'll slip into obscurity quickly. It takes talent, or sustained effort, to become internet famous. Consider the case of XXX of Brandlink Communications. Like Christoforo, he acted like an ass, and won a day or two, tops, of internet fame — but now he's slipping inexorably into deserved oblivion. And he's still employed. And it's only been six months, but if you say YYY, people will say "who?"
It's true that the internet has a short attention span. In terms of the number of people who will remember your name offhand, your internet fame will be short-lived. But the internet has an incredibly long memory. When people actually search for you, for whatever reason, they'll still find all the same stuff.  If you want to see the example of the YYY name above, see what searching for her name produces. You may not remember her name off the top of your head, but someone who searches for her is going to find that stuff for a long time to come. And that is what makes it unfair. The woman in question acted rudely on a train, and was caught on video. I confidently predict that the nasty web coverage will still be found by people searching for her name for a longer period of time than a person would serve a prison sentence for manslaughter.

Next, Ken argues that this doesn't matter, because everyone can make up their mind:
Finally, some argue that internet infamy can be "out of proportion" to the offense. Perhaps. But isn't that the call of every person who reads about your actions? People don't win instant internet notoriety based on third-hard accounts of conduct. They win it because they do something on video, or in writing, that's notable. If what they did really isn't that bad — if it's truly been blown out of proportion — then can't future readers determine that for themselves? There's more than a whiff of paternalism to the "blown out of proportion" concern — it seems to suggest that we ought not write about someone's misdeeds because future readers can't be trusted to assess their significance themselves. I disagree. ZZZ's future employers, employees, associates, and friends are perfectly capable of reading up on the situation and making up their own minds.
Sure, but there's still a huge selectivity. Every day, hundreds of millions act like rude d***heads in some situation or other. How many of those are likely to have all their future employers focusing on one bad specific incident in their lives, even if they do 'make up their own mind'. The argument seems to be 'hey, maybe they won't all punish you for it!'. But that doesn't speak to the selectivity of it all. There's still a sizable negative cost, and it gets applied in a very arbitrary and capricious way.

Okay, so maybe it's not fair to the individuals, but is it worth it overall? Ken argues yes:
For the last hundred years, people who care about such things have been complaining about the anonymity of modern life. People who used to live in small towns live in big cities, and people are turned towards television and globalized, homogenized culture rather than towards their neighborhood. One consequence is the ability to treat people badly — even in serial fashion — with relative impunity. It used to be that you'd get the reputation as the town drunk or the town letch, or the village idiot, and that reputation would follow you until you move on to another town. But now many people don't even know their neighbors, let alone their whole "town."
With respect to certain bad behavior, the internet can change that — it can transform you into the resident of an insular town of 300 million people.
But here's the meat of my objection - very few of the major cases of internet fame involve people actually doing anything, as opposed to merely saying something.

And I take a strong stand that mean words on their own just aren't a big deal. Unless you're actively inciting criminal behaviour, words don't matter that much. Make a really mean comment about Trig Palin? Post a racist video on the internet? That makes you an @$$hole. Know what else makes you an @$$hole. Littering. Cutting people off in traffic. Peeing on the seat in a public toilet and not wiping it up. And a million other things that we don't get the vapours about, even though I don't want to associate with people who do them regularly. Rudeness is never going to be eliminated, and I suggest that you may well not actually enjoy living in a society where it had been. It would certainly be a lot more boring.

For the most part, the tendency towards internet pile-ons is associated with a more pernicious trend - sympathetic offense. That remark wasn't directed at me, but I'm going to be outraged on behalf of somebody else, even if that someone else isn't personally offended. This of course leads to what John Derbyshire memorably described as the 'evolution towards the ever thinner-skinned'. Here at Shylock Holmes HQ, we are proud to fight against this trend.

What I don't like about internet pile-ons is the sense of gleeful indignant rage they involve. The people piling on usually are really enjoying laying the boot into someone, assured of their own righteousness.

And that is always an ugly emotion to watch when spread across a mob, even if just an internet mob.

I respectfully dissent.

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