Affordances and Public Shaming on the Internet

When looking for connections or contrasts between Danah Boyd’s “It’s Complicated” and Ronson’s “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”, I found that the affordances of technology, specifically social media, Boyd describes enables the public internet shaming Ronson talks about. Boyd discusses four aspects of these affordances, which are “persistence: the durability of online expressions and content, visibility: the potential audience who can bear witness, spreadability,: the ease with which content can be shared and searchability: the ability to find content.” (Boyd 11).

These four contributing factors of affordance make it possible for us to shame one another on a larger public scale than ever before. Due to the durability of online expressions and content, people find trouble retracting statements they mistakenly make, because even when their presence is deleted, the tweet or post lives on. The visibility aspect of affordances is immense; millions of people have access to your personal social media platform with just a click. I also want to pause and raise the question: what does this mean for us as people? I can convey ideas about myself and life easily through social media, and none of them are reflections of my truest self. Can we access depictions of one another so easily that we’re numb to the actual human behind the screen? Completely.

The spreadability social media holds is immense, the websites we actively go on make it incredibly easy for us to “retweet” “share” and “like” things. So when one person finds another’s actions indisputable, and expresses so through social media, it is extremely easy for others to hop on without fully forming their own opinions. This is what enables such public shaming to take place.

All of these affordances contribute to the power of social media, but they not only enable public shaming, but through “liking” and “retweeting”, they almost encourage it.

It’s difficult to pick a Ronson quote that completely conveys the power of the internet, and in turn the ability it gives us to shame one another. The best way to connect to Boyd’s idea of affordances is when Ronson says, “On the Internet we have power in situations where we would otherwise be powerless.” (Ronson 123). It’s anxiety-inducing to think we hold access to the world in the palm of our hand, and I don’t find that to be an exaggeration. The public shaming Ronson describes in his book is the perfect depiction of it. You screw up once, and people will hold it against you forever. But technology is getting in the way of our basic human sympathies. I am not for racist remarks, or plagiarism, but I know people make mistakes and misjudgments. It’s how we grow and understand what’s acceptable and what’s not. Online bullying is a huge thing teenagers face today. It’s difficult to see adults participate just as easily, just because they can. 

Behind the Screen Bullies

Ronson and boyd dissect the same subject, but they take different approaches of doing so. They both focus on how technology affects and enhances the publicity of negatively treating others. Ronson discusses shaming and boyd discusses bullying. Bullying is a stepping stone on the way to shaming. As we discussed in class, bullying tends to be a more “private” form of harassment usually done by one specific person. Shaming is harassment done in a very public forum, and can be done by anyone with access to the situation – whether they know the person being shamed or not.

Ronson and boyd both explain how technology plays a major role in shaming and bullying. Shaming and bullying have been around for ages, as Ronson proves with a brief history anecdote, but are now becoming more public in a different light due to technology. The internet and social media have created numerous ways for shamers and bullies to harass people, and for others to join in on the bashing. Ronson highlights online shaming done to adults, but boyd proves online bullying happens with teens as well.
It is interesting to think about how technology has affected this issue – from the publicity of it to the amount of people participating in it. When I think about stories such as Justine Sacco’s, I wonder why so many people felt it was their job to publicly shame and harass her. Of course she tweeted an insensitive comment, but the lengths that people behind their screens went to to punish her is concerning. We all make mistakes, even though they may not be that public or extreme, so when did we decide to publicly humiliate and shame one another for those mistakes to this degree? Online shaming and bullying has gone from more than just attacking the person for their mistake. It turns into attacking their character and values, and destroying their life piece by piece. Most of the people Ronson highlighted lost their jobs due to the amount of public shaming they received. While I do not condone the mistakes of the people boyd and Ronson highlight, I also do not think that the level of bullying and shaming (or any of it for that matter) people have taken up are okay either. It is a complex issue with lots of layers; but, I think that Ronson and boyd have both written interesting and entertaining books that peel away at those layers in order to help us understand the connections between bullying and shaming and technology.

Embracing one’s flaws: Ronson vs. Boyd

Boyd and Ronson take different approaches to how social media is used in today’s society, but they share some similar opinions. Both authors highlight some negative sides to social media in their work, but both also believe that social media as a whole is not negative, it is just how some people decide to use it. Social media culture is a result of how society is changing and people must accept it and learn to use it properly and effectively.

Ronson’s focus is online shaming. This is when somebody says something online that people either take out of context or view as completely unacceptable and basically destroy their lives online (and offline) by sending mean and threatening messages to/about the person. Among the people he interviewed, Max Mosely is one of interest. What makes him stand out in Ronson’s book is not only was he not shamed online, but he wouldn’t let people shame him, so to speak. As Ronson puts it, “it was simply that he has refused to feel ashamed” (Ronson 156). Mosely himself states that “as soon as the victim steps out of the pact by refusing to feel ashamed, the whole thing crumbles” (Ronson 156). Mosely embraced and owned up to the things that people were trying to shame him for and refused to feel embarrassed about them. Since Mosely wasn’t being effected by everyone’s efforts to shame him, there was no point in them trying to continue.

Let’s think about Boyd. Boyd’s primary focus is the relationship between social media and teenagers. She is concerned with how teens are using social media, how it differs/is the same from how teens from previous generations communicated, and the impact that the transition to online life is having on these kids. She briefly touches on the subject of bullying and how it can take form online. She interviews a girl who has a situation completely different than Mosley’s, but the actions and viewpoint she takes are very similar. This girl preemptively posts embarrassing pictures of herself online so her friends can’t post anything embarrassing about her, which “guarantees that others can’t control the social situation” (Boyd page 75). She told Boyd how “her apparent exhibitionism left plenty of room for people to not focus on the things that were deeply intimate in her life” (Boyd 75). By showing this embarrassing side of herself online, others cannot touch her since she embraces it and does not feel ashamed of others seeing those photos.

These are two very different situations; one is about an old man after a huge attempt from people to shame him, and the other is about a teenage girl posting things online to prevent that shaming from happening. However, Mosley and the girl use the same logic: they own up to the material that people might want to shame them for “because they do not want people to have power over them” (Boyd 75). This prompts the question from Ronson: “does a shaming only work if the shame plays his or her part in it by feeling ashamed?” (page 156).