Posted: Sep 30, 2013 9:30 AM
Smartphones and social media. It seems like everyone is using them, and they're hard to get away from. But what happens when one person takes a photo of another with the intention to publicly embarrass or shame them on social media? Is there a better way to handle conflict, or are we entering a dangerous age of social media witch hunts?

In recent months several stories have surfaced about individuals using social media to poke fun at, tattle on or outright shame someone. In March of this year, developer Adria Richards tweeted a photo of two men at a tech conference after she was offended by comments they made to each other during a presentation. In May, a woman posted photos and commentary about female students at her son’s school that she felt were dressed inappropriately. In June, a woman overheard a man on a commuter train boasting to friends about his extramarital affairs, took his photo and posted it on Facebook, asking friends to share. Each instance was heavily circulated online, thanks to expanding social media reach and screen captures.

Seems when someone has a problem with another individual, they throw them to the social media wolves and let their followers cast the stones.

Why is this happening?

We live in a technologically advanced world where many are quick to post updates on everything, from our mundane lunch to controversial political opinions. The problem is we often don’t think too hard before we do so. And the same goes for passing judgment on others. The internet gives us a boost of confidence, and people find themselves saying things that they would never say aloud to someone.

To type up a sentence and hit 'post' is much, much easier than making that same statement aloud, while facing the person you are insulting.

"It’s much easier to take a 'jab' at someone when you are hiding behind a computer screen," says Liz Jostes, co-founder of Eli Rose Social Media, a small business social media and consulting firm. "To type up a sentence and hit 'post' is much, much easier than making that same statement aloud, while facing the person you are insulting." Turns out social media shaming is the modern version of whispering your grievances about someone to a friend, only that whisper ends up getting heard by hundreds of Facebook friends, thousands of Twitter followers and more.

Modern day bullying

How are these instances different from tattling, or picking on the kid on the playground who doesn't have the right shoes? Because someone has 9,000 Twitter followers to back them up and a nice computer screen to hide behind?

phone with tweets graphics

Social media shaming has alarmingly become the easiest way for kids and adults alike to take part in a modern form of bullying. In May, blogger Vivienne Wagner wrote a scathing post, complete with unapproved photos, passing judgment on the attire seen on female students at her son’s school. Parents were understandably upset and the post taken down within hours; however, not before Jezebel writer Katie J.M Baker was able to obtain screenshots of the images and post her rebuttal.

In July, a man was banned from his local gym — and the entire chain — after he secretly took a photo of another gym patron and poked fun at him on Facebook. Luckily this guy got what he deserved, but this is what's so disturbing about this trend. Anyone anywhere can take a photo of another individual and post it to their social media profiles, and say whatever they want.

Not without consequences

Just as someone's online reach is greater than their real life influence, so can be the backlash from a tweet or Facebook post. In the case of the gym bully, he was not only banned from his gym, but a screen capture of his post received 3,491 upvotes on Reddit, and his family severed financial ties with him. After Adria Richards tweeted her photo of two men who made an offensive joke at a tech conference, one of the men was fired. Not long after, Richards herself was fired after her employer deemed her method of handling the situation inappropriate and over the line. Was the joke immature and deserving of an eye roll? Probably. Did anyone deserve to lose their job over it? Definitely not.

Lessons learned

The online world provides a good dose of detachment, where we forget that this person has a family, a job, a personal life, feelings.

"There's an offline parallel to just about everything we do online," says Jostes. Parents have the opportunity to not only set examples for their children in real life, but online as well. She recommends talking to kids about privacy settings and how to adjust them for various posts and networks, as well as deleting items and the reality of screen captures.

However anonymous the strangers around us might seem, we are all people. The online world provides a good dose of detachment, where we forget that this person has a family, a job, a personal life, feelings. So before you post that photo of someone wearing a tacky outfit or someone whose conversation you just don’t appreciate, ask yourself:

  • Would I say this in person or to their face?
  • Is someone being hurt?
  • Is anyone offended other than me?
  • Is there a better way to handle this situation?
  • Is this an invasion of privacy?
  • Is this any of my business?
  • Could my actions end up hurting someone?

Most of all, think before you post.

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