Home > Critic-At-Large > Revenge of the Trolls
Revenge of the Trolls
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
For someone who pretends to be "above" social media, I certainly do have a substantial on-line footprint. I have two Twitter accounts, one with my name attached, the other an anonymous one that gives me the freedom to tee off on the local goings-on in the area where I live. I have a Facebook page, with about 150 friends, and I have a Facebook group page devoted entirely to my hair. ("Chris Colcord's Hair," if you'd like to join. My hair has almost as many friends as I do.)
There's nothing terribly noteworthy about my various social media pages. Like you, I spend a lot of time wondering why I invest so much thought and energy into my posts, posts that I'm sure are forgotten almost immediately by anybody who encounters them. I've rationalized my wasted time, saying that social media helps keep me connected, but I know that's not entirely true. More than once I've thought about quitting all together--I've actually removed my Facebook page a couple of times--but I always go back. But this past week I read Jon Ronson's book So You've Been Publicly Shamed (2015), and when I put the book down, I realized that the most prudent thing to do, in this day and age, is to pull the plug on every social media page that carries your name.
In Ronson's book — which explains his hypothesis that public shaming has returned, full-force, in this new landscape of technological access — he shows how a few hastily-written tweets and Facebook posts turned some relatively anonymous people into international pariahs. Ronson painstakingly details what happened, and it's horrifying--basically, somebody makes a poorly-thought-out joke online, and it just explodes, virally, leading to unbelievable consequences — loss of job, loss of career, death threats, public denunciations, universal contempt. It's not hyperbole to say that lives got ruined by that five-second lapse of judgment when the authors decided to punch the "Post" button.
If you're hip to internet sensations of the past half-decade, you're probably aware of some of the people that Ronson profiles — one of the victims, for instance, became the most searched-for name on Google at that time, at the height of their infamy — but I had never heard of them. When I read their stories, though, I couldn't help but feel deep empathy for their ordeals. In every case, the initial joke made wasn't that bad — in dubious taste, of course, but anyone with a modicum of intelligence would recognize that the authors were employing irony, and irony is always hard to get across in a quick-hit post. The internet is notorious for not being receptive to the concept of nuance, after all.
There's a lot to take in in Ronson's book — it's a quick read but dense with information, some of it hard to believe. (Every time you type a query into Google, for instance, Google makes 38 cents. Thirty-eight cents!) It's also a very thoughtful examination about the nature of shame, and how pernicious and evil and life-destroying it can be. The chapter on socio-pathic criminals is a real eye-opener; it shows that shame, and mortification, is in the personal history of every killer studied in the prison that's highlighted in the book. When some progressive prison reformers tried to get the worst, most destructive killers to talk about their sense of shame, via therapy, the results were striking. Removing their shame helped return some of their humanity.
But I can't help but return to the unfortunate ones who saw their lives change, overnight, because of one bad joke; that's the part of the book that really gets under my skin. Because I can't help but recognize how easy it would be for me to suffer the same fate. When I said earlier that my Facebook page is hardly noteworthy, that's true enough, but I do have a sharply splenetic and caustic tone that's probably different from most others, and that tone could potentially get me into some serious hot water. I have a rather unfortunate, perverse nature, which means that I view most of my posts on Facebook as opportunities for some quickie shock-value jokes, because I can't bear how earnest and sincere and boring most posts are on Facebook; I like to look at the contrast of my juvenile posts to the honest, idiotic ones. It doesn't take much imagination to visualize how one of my nasty digs could blow up in my face — the wrong joke, at the wrong time, and suddenly I become everyone's pariah.
One time I made a mistake on Twitter — I intended to post something really bitchy on my anonymous account, but I posted it instead on the one with my name attached. I rarely get any responses to any of my tweets, but this one got some blow back immediately, and I had to delete it. Thank God it went no further than that, and the internet police went back to their usual practice of ignoring everything I write. But it was a lesson learned. If I don't take down all my social media accounts, I should probably at least be a little safer. Post only pictures of my kids. Shout outs to my wife. The "Hang in There" internet kitten. And pictures of food, endless, endless pictures of my breakfast, lunch and dinner. Yummy!