I sometimes wonder what we did before the social web, when we wanted to laugh at people. There is no denying the fact that our online interactions are interspersed with moments of shock and ridicule, as we look at the strangest, stupidest, and outright bizarre moments of people, making us despair for the human race. From happy selfies at funerals or in front of approaching trains to ignorance about geography, politics, or even the most basic human survival skills, these make us wonder how, as a species, we have managed to survive, let alone gather dominion over this planet. It does feel that the internet was made neither for porn nor for cats, but to make us understand how colossally stupid human beings are.
There are entire websites devoted to people capturing the ridiculous lack of common sense that their fellow humans exhibit. Twitter goes into regular outrage as videos or pictures depicting people doing unimaginably silly things make their way to the web. Click-bait articles on social media constantly invite us to point, shame, and laugh, in disbelief and horror at things that people do. The hashtag #facepalm and #YouHad1Job have been created to remind us that the world is made of people who should really make us question the wisdom of crowds.
I stand as guilty as the next person, regularly clicking on these links, and laughing, with equal measures of condescension, shock and despair, at the antics that people pull off in their everyday lives. People wearing ridiculous clothes in inappropriate settings, people flagrantly disregarding the laws of reality and physics, people committing mistakes of incredible proportions, and people, in general, being people — gullible, prone to error, and subject to accidents — are all fair game for collective derision. They become memes, they go viral, and their moment of misfortune makes them the poster children for internet’s shaming practices.
Even as I continue to trawl through these images that make you beg for a screaming asteroid to come and end it all, I have been feeling uncomfortable about watching these images. This is not just discomfort that comes from claiming a common genetic makeup with the people involved but from the realisation that beyond the laughter and the shock, I am just being mean, and joining the bullying and shaming tactics that have become a default part of the social web.
What has really started concerning me about these click-laugh-forget moments is the question of privacy, where we embody contradictions of all kinds. We have a ghoulish interest in stalking the lives of celebrities, while we vehemently protest against social media companies mining our data for profits. We demand control of our data even as we treat the entire world as a setting for a potential Instagram moment. We take extra measures to remain safe and anonymous, but we have no qualms in distributing images of others. And hence, when we come across these images that seek to shame and laugh at people, we see no problem in the fact that most of these images are captured, stored, distributed and shared without the consent of the people in them.
We have so easily installed ourselves in cultures of “shame on demand” that we have learned to think of people in these images as non-human. They are shallow, flattened, caricatures of themselves, and as we gleefully share them for the OMG! moment of the day, we forget that eventually these images will go back to the people in the image, and circulate among their social groups, peers, colleagues and family. And while we might gawk, laugh, share and forget, these pictures of non-consensual distribution will stay forever. The internet is a ruthless non-forgetting archive, and these images are stored, sorted, tagged, identified, and will remain in digital memory that haunts the people identified as “morons” in these pictures.
There has been a lot of debate around non-consensual and revenge pornography, because of its vicious money-making tactics and the harm it does to the people who are exposed for their bodies and activities. While there is much work to be done to put safeguards against such practices, we need to take cognisance that non-consensual data distribution and its harm is not limited to pornography or naked pictures. It has become a part of our naturalised digital practices to override consent, to deny agency, and ridicule, shame, and bully people by unscrupulous sharing.
It is time to realise that the internet is not “just” the internet, and that what we do online has direct and sometimes dire impact on our physical worlds. So even if we do not question these shaming practices for human empathy, or concerns of privacy for those who are being targeted by these images, we should at least do it for fear. Because in the surveillance societies we live in, there is always a camera ready to capture the next time we are in a state of folly, ready to make us the object of derision and shame.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore