Roxanne Tellier: IRL – Tweets and Shaming


If you are very lucky, you have never, and will never, be in a situation where a group of ordinary people suddenly turn into an angry mob. It’s like the flip of a switch. In a heartbeat, centuries of evolution dissolve, and the hive mind kicks in. Whether you are part of the mob, the object of the mob’s outrage, or are simply caught up in the emotional frenzy, the mob mentality overrules the civilized mind and transforms perfectly ordinary people into raging, club swinging Neanderthals with a single purpose – destruction.


In recent years it’s become commonplace to see public physical violence in the mass media. What’s not as obvious, but just as malignant, is how social media can provide the same cozy home for the baser pack-mind.

Consider the case of Justine Sacco, a young woman with 170 Twitter followers, who, on a December 2013 trip to South Africa to visit family, tweeted, Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m justine saccowhite!

At the time, Justine was a senior public relations person for a large corporation. She loved to tweet snarky social commentary on the people she encountered during work or personal travel. Half an hour after sending the tweet, no one had replied. She boarded the eleven-hour (and non-Internet connected) flight, and fell asleep.

During the flight, her thoughtless remark struck a chord with some who took offense at her words. Like a virus, indignation and rage swept the Internet. As she slept, Justine’s life was being dissected by strangers, her employers were announcing that they would be taking the “appropriate action,” and the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet began trending on Twitter.

anti Sacco tweets

In his book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” author Jon Ronson looks at this and other instances where social media users came together as a horde to publicly shame unwitting individuals. The sheer mass of the Internet has “showed social media’s power to propel a story, in this case turning a previously little-known executive into a figure of notoriety while raising issues of free speech and tolerance.” (Ashley Southall, New York Times.)

Twitter is particularly notorious for juvenile banter, failed wisecracks, and snobby snark.The true devotees pan through the morass for the occasional chunk of gold, but the overwhelming tide of those not quite ready for prime-time commentators can start to feel like swimming in sewage. When pile-ons like that which Justine survived occur, it’s hard not to cringe at public outrage that is less about teaching the subject a lesson, and more about having the world see you do so in a witty fashion.


She was fired from her job and forced into seclusion.Harsh punishment for a silly attempt at a flippant quip.

swarm-of-mosquitoesWhere once the belligerent high school bully, brave with his gang behind him, could terrorize the nerds in his general vicinity, we’ve now given everyone  with access to a computer and the Internet  the ability to torment anyone they  decide offends their sensibilities in any way. From righteous Grammar Nazis to ‘concerned citizens,’ we’ve enabled like-minded people to find each other and coordinate a death by mosquito bite.

The history of public shaming is ugly, long, and universal. European settlers brought the practice to America with them, but by 1787, a more enlightened society began to understand the damage public punishment inflicted.

stocks-colonial-times-RIYCBenjamin Rush, a United States founding father, called for the outlawing of the stocks, pillory, and whipping post, saying,

“Ignominy is universally acknowledged to be a worse punishment than death … it would seem strange that ignominy should ever have been adopted as a milder punishment than death, did we not know that the human mind seldom arrives at truth up on any subject till it has first reached the extremity of error.”

Within fifty years, public punishments were abolished in America, although the state of Delaware kept whipping on the books as an option until 1952. Ultimately, this shaming was found to constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Constitution.

Shaming has crept back into the culture for many reasons, but primarily because so many on the ‘Net simply don’t think of social media as “real life.” The acronym IRL(In Real Life)is meant to differentiate how we operate in our physical world versus the things that we do online. Newsflash: Online Is Real Life. It’s really happening, with impact on real people, not robots or avatars. It’s not a game, it’s not something that we sit back and watch – we’re all participating, actively creating the online world we now spend more time and energy within than the rest of our lives.

facebook as real life

We bring our selves to social media, and we are not characters in a movie, nor all we all hero or all villain. We are not (hopefully) ‘bots, only able to follow scripts. Being human, we make mistakes. We feel a karmic retribution when the shamer finds him or herself the victim of shaming. Because we’re all just people, subject to lapses of judgment, venal, and vulnerable to a surfeit of emotion or intoxicants, and always, always … fallible.

Most of the time our public conversations are mundane and even boring. It’s the sort of chatter you’d hear at the mall or at a cocktail party. We tend to be part of like-minded groups, to stay within our safe circle of people very much like ourselves, agreeing on what we consider to be the fundamentals of our day to day lives.


But it takes very little for the tone to change. Anything that happens, good or bad, can trigger an outrage out of all proportion to the event, and suddenly our backs are up, and we’re defending words and stances. We’re saying things that we’d never say to someone’s face. Our replies may start off earnestly, an attempt to explain why the other person’s position is in error, but almost inevitably, and remarkably quickly, the argument plummets into snark, meanness, vicious verbal attacks, and sometimes threats of violence. What the heck just happened there?


We also live in a society full of people who get off on scolding others…  Further complicating matters, people who get off on scolding others often hitch themselves to people who genuinely want to improve society for all, Church-Lady-2swhich slaps a righteous veneer on their fundamental desire to make other people feel small. That’s true of “church ladies” of all genders in every religion; atheists who demand that religious people admit they’re being conned; right-wingers who want to restrict their compatriots’ rights to “sin”; left-wingers so bent on nitpicking others’ politics for signs of insufficient radicalisms, they create a climate of fear among people who are, in all important ways, on the same damned side; and also reflection-averse left-wingers who, by virtue of being on the same damned side, feel perfectly justified in scolding every critic along a vast continuum of outrage for excessive outrage.” (Kate Harding, author.)

facebook scolding

Social media caters to the cult of Self. It disrupts profound thought. It’s a wonderful tool for mobilizing like-minded people, but it also marches to the internal drum that insists that what we believe to be right is the only right. And if you don’t agree with me, there’s a handy “unfriend” button to remove you and your ideas from my sight. Challenge not accepted, sir! Begone!

960x540Post-feeding frenzy, the rational mind kicks in, and that is when the metaphorical feces hits the fan. Both the shamer and the shamed must face the damage left behind. The Internet IS Real Life. When we’ve hurt someone online, even unintentionally, a psychological violence has been done. Even if we’d rather not think about it too much or for too long, we have to look at what we’ve done and why.

Our excuses for what we’ve done are many. Rather than a sincere apology, it’s more likely we’ll hear something along the lines of “You misunderstood what I said,” (implying intellectual weakness on the part of the person supposedly being mollified) or “Can’t take a joke? You need to toughen up!” again implying the speaker is somehow superior. Some will claim higher moral ground, noting a righteous need to “emphasize personal responsibility and mutual respect,” government speak for “do as I say, not as I do.”

bad apology

“When people feel guilt, they feel bad about what they did — I did a bad thing. When people feel shame, they feel bad about themselves — I’m a bad person for having done that. Shame is about me and the kind of person I am, and guilt is about my behavior and what I did. When people focus on a behavior, they tend to be more inclined to think about how that behavior hurt the other person and they’re less likely to get all defensive about being a bad person. “  (June Tangney,professor of psychology.George Mason University)

We don’t need a kinder, gentler Internet, filled with rainbows and unicorns and “why can’t we just all get along?” We don’t have to be nice just for the sake of being nice, nor should we be mean, critical,snarky, or superior, just because we can. There’s a fine line between criticism and cruelty. Learning to take criticism from whence it came is a hard lesson, but invaluable.

“Life is learning. Increasingly, life is learning to filter out voices that cause you pain without contributing anything of value, and tune in to voices that cause you pain because you need a little suffering to grow.” (Kate Harding)

be-this-guyOur thoughts, deeds and words shape our world, on the physical and Internet plain. What we need is more empathy, more of an understanding that everyone screws up now and again, and that each of us, no matter our sex, or sex lives, colour or creed, education or financial status, is no less deserving of empathy or forgiveness than any other.

We can’t let censorship and shaming become the price of doing business on the Internet.


Roxanne’s column appears here every Sunday 

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DBAWIS ButtonRoxanne Tellier has been singing since she was 10 months old … no, really. Not like she’s telling anyone else how to live their lives, because she’s not judgmental, and most 10 month olds need a little more time to figure out how to hold a microphone. She has also been a vocalist with many acts, including Tangents, Lady, Performer, Mambo Jimi, and Delta Tango. In 2013 she co-hosted Bob Segarini’s podcast, The Bobcast, and, along with Bobert, will continue to seek out and destroy the people who cancelled ‘Bunheads’.

One Response to “Roxanne Tellier: IRL – Tweets and Shaming”

  1. This is fabulous! You are so bang on. I have an aversion to this faceless world we live in. I consider those who avoid human contact as cowards hiding behind their machines. THEY should be ashamed.

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