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The Age of Shame

The ability to capture private images is breeding a dangerous form of digital shaming.

Updated: March 30, 2014 5:23 am
save-m It sometimes emerges as an attempt to shame governments, private institutions, places of consumption, for compromise of the rights of the users.


By: Nishant Shah column

Within the online space, where wonderments often run rife, and conspiracy theories travel at the speed of light, there are many dark recesses where netizens half-jokingly, self-referentially, in a spirit of part-truth, part-exaggeration, often wonder on what the real reason is for the internet to exist.

One suggestion, and probably the most persuasive one, drawing from the Broadway musical Avenue Q, is that the internet was made for porn. Positing a competing argument is a clowder of cat lovers, who insist that the internet was made for cats. Or, at least, it is definitely made of cats.

From the first internet memes like LOL Cats (and then subsequently Grumpy Cat, Ceiling Cat and Hipster Kitty), which had pictures of cats used for strong social, cultural and political commentary, to Caturday — a practice where users on the Web’s largest unmoderated discussion board, 4Chan, post pictures of cats every Saturday — cats are everywhere.

I want to add to this list and suggest that the internet was meant for “shame”. With the explosion of the interactive Web, more people getting access to mobile computing devices, and more websites inviting users to write reviews, leak pictures, expose videos and reveal more personal and private information online, there seems to be no doubt that we live in the age of digital shaming.

It sometimes emerges as an attempt to shame governments, private institutions, places of consumption, for compromise of the rights of the users.

Anything, from denial of service and corruption in government offices to bad food and substandard goods in restaurants and malls, is now reported in an attempt to shame the people responsible for it. This kind of “citizen journalism” allows for individual voices and experiences to be heard and documented, and the people in question are forced to be accountable for their jobs.

From fascinating websites like to restaurant review sites like Zomato, we have seen an interesting phenomenon of “naming and shaming” that gives voice to individual discontent and anger. And so commonplace has this become, that most managers of different services and goods track, respond and mitigate the situation, often offering apologies and freebies to make up for that one bad experience.

Most big organisations have Twitter handles that function in a similar way, addressing grievances of users in real time, and helping to deliver better services and products. It is a new era of granular accountability that ensures that individual acts of discrimination, neglect or just disservice get reported and have direct impact on those responsible for it.

On the other end of the spectrum of this call for transparent and accountable structures, is the phenomenon of shaming and cyber bullying that is also increasing, especially with digital natives who spend more time online. On social networking sites, it has become almost passé, for personal and sensitive information to be leaked in order to shame and expose a person’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Especially for young teens who might be in a disadvantaged position — for reasons of sexual orientation, location, practices or interests — the shaming through exposing their private information often creates extremely traumatic conditions, even leading people to take their lives.

Shaming takes up particularly dire forms on websites and platforms that are designed to leak this kind of information. Hunter Moore, who has recently earned the title of being the most hated man on the internet, was the founder of a revenge-porn website, which invited male users to reveal sexual and embarrassing pictures of their former girlfriends and even spouses, to reveal them in compromising positions and shame them for being “sluts”.

Moore’s website has been shut down now and he is facing multiple charges of felony in the US, but that one site was just the tip of the iceberg. Slut shaming and trying to humiliate women has become a strong underground practice on the dark web. Hidden by anonymity and the security that the Web can sometimes offer, people betray the trust of their friends and lovers and expose them to be punished by voyeuristic audiences.

The aesthetic, also embedded in peer-to-peer platforms like chatroulete, or snapchat, where people often engage in sexting, is also becoming common in popular media. The ability to spy, to capture private images and videos, and expose the people who violate some imagined moral code has dangerous implications for the future of the Web and our own private lives. And as more of it goes unpunished and gets naturalised in our everyday digital practices, it is time to realise that the titillation it offers through scandal is far outweighed by the growing stress and grief it causes to victims. While there are some values to public shaming that ask for more transparency and accountability, we need to reflect on how it is creating societies of shame. n

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