Shame on us? Why the power of social media must be used wisely

Looking back on the nearly 20 years since we’ve embraced the World Wide Web, the social media revolution is probably the most important thing that’s emerged from the medium. However, it’s pretty clear that we are not sure how to handle the power that revolution can allow us to wield.

We were reminded of this once again this past week by two separate stories: Adria Richards, a developer evangelist for SendGrid, was fired by her employer after tweeting a picture of two men at a Silicon Valley tech conference who she said were making inappropriate and harassing sexual comments. A firestorm erupted, as one of the men was fired from his job at Playhaven, Richards was subjected to horrifying abuse from anonymous internet trolls who were outraged that she used Twitter to shame men for making juvenile and inappropriate but not exactly hateful comments, and bystanders were left shaking their heads by the speed at which two people lost their jobs over a dongle joke.

And in San Francisco, the capital of the social media revolution, laid-off Uber drivers protested the company’s business model after they felt they were wrongly fired for receiving poor feedback in the company’s user-rating system. among other things. At first glances, this seems like exactly the sort of thing a social-media driven on-demand service should do: give its customers a way to identify the bad drivers while rewarding the good ones.

But like all crowdsourced feedback systems, Uber’s feedback system depends on the notion that all the feedback presented to it is genuine, as opposed to the feedback from a rich, entitled and drunk San Francisco resident who spends three seconds leaving a one-star rating if his black Town Car doesn’t arrive exactly when it should because traffic was bad. (Om explored the ramifications of this on labor rights in a recent piece on “data Darwinism.”) Uber drivers can rate passengers, but as long as the passenger isn’t obnoxious or threatening, it’s hard to know which passengers are merely aloof jerks; and Uber doesn’t have a lot of incentive to shame its paying customers.

These types of problems will continue to happen so long as we continue to find immense value in social media. And for the most part that value is deserved: social media gives a voice to important and creative people who otherwise would have been ignored, allows strangers to meet and old friends to stay in touch, and has even helped organize political revolutions. The public values of companies like Google, Facebook, and (soon enough) Twitter are not a mirage; they provide services people adore while allowing marketers to find their best customers.

But as we explored last year in our discussion on ComfortablySmug, the use of these services to publicly shame individuals is a very tricky thing. Some people deserve it, and some people don’t; but the speed at which pointed accusations can fly can have permanent consequences that don’t necessarily fit the crime.

Social media

This has always been true with media, social or not. But now reports can appear in search engines almost immediately tied to an individual’s name, regardless of how large a media entity picks up the story. They can spread like wildfire before the person even has a chance to respond, and they can be used to determine if you keep your job. There’s a reason online reputation management firms are growing.

Some feel that identifying and shaming inappropriate (not illegal or dangerous, but out of line) behavior on the web will lead to a reduction in such behavior, as people learn there are consequences to their actions. But that presumes that the shamers always correctly interpret the situation; that the two men at the conference were creating a hostile environment, or that the driver actually provided you with subpar service.

And even if they do correctly interpret the situation, is it right to conclude that digitally shaming those you feel have wronged you is the proper response? The use of public shaming in the criminal justice system is certainly controversial; why should ordinary folks feel the right to employ such tactics indiscriminately?

This is far from the first time we’ve had such a discussion, and it’s not going to be the last. We’re hopefully going to be able to figure this out as a society: we need to create a digital code of conduct that extends the grace and decency human beings generally show each other in public to the web, where an astonishing number of people leave those traits behind.

But the problem is that we’re trying to do this at warp speed, and it’s only getting faster. We’re walking around with ever-more sophisticated recording instruments and we might even soon wear them on our faces.

Are we really heading toward a future in which we feel it’s appropriate to judge each other’s behavior in an instant and publicly share it with the world?

Featured photo courtesy Flickr user jetheriot, text photo courtesy Flickr user Rosaura Ochoa.