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From motivation to slander: How social media leverages shame for better and worse

How social media leverages shame for better and worse
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Shame is a powerful motivator. If you know people will judge you for your behavior, you tend to try harder to do things the right way. Combine it with social media, which lets you broadcast the minutiae of your life to the world, and you’ve got a potent concoction for feeling horrible about yourself.

Sometimes people give themselves high stakes to make it easier to stick to goals. In this case, shame is a positive force. And there are social media services capitalizing on this type of shame. But there’s also shame with no purpose, the kind that exists simply to make you feel like a piece of garbage.

Somewhere along the line, social media transformed from a virtual communication and connection tool into a broadcasting medium. The term “lifestreaming” didn’t appear out of thin air, after all. We are all the stars of our digitally capture and shared story, through photos, videos, tweets, blog posts, status updates. It means that there is more power at the individual level than ever before, but it also means that we are putting ourselves in the position of having all that content thrown back in our faces. The Internet has no qualms playing the shame game – in same cases, as a motivation tool, in others, maliciously. 

No shame, no gain

Some new social apps are harnessing the mighty power of shame as a motivating tool. For instance, Gym Shamer is a new and utterly ruthless app designed to shame you into going to the gym. When you sign up, you state how often you want to work out a week. Using Fourqquare, Facebook and Twitter, the Gym Shamer app keeps track of how often you check into the gym. If you fail, it will automatically broadcast your laziness to your friends, family, and sexy acquaintances.

This is the kind of thing that sounds amazing January 1 and atrocious February 27.

shame alarmBut maybe you love going to the gym. You chug protein shakes and you’re fluent in meathead. There are plenty of other social shaming apps around. Take Shame Alarm – it’s an iPhone app that sends Twitter and Facebook updates letting everyone know when you pressed snooze. It even lets you customize your “Shame Message,” so you can write something really horrible about yourself as motivation to get up on time.

Other services will shame you into making better decisions without your prior knowledge. For instance, a Twitter account called @NeedADebitCard calls people out for posting their bank information on the Internet. The account re-posts photos people take of their credit cards, number included. Most people who realize they’ve been shamed take down the information, so it could actually serve a legitimate purpose, though it’s pretty harsh in its methodology.

None of these compare, however, to the far more malicious world of social media shaming. 

The Mean Girls of social media 

If you’re a college student who drank a bit too much and made out with that guy from your Anthropology class at some point, any and all harmless fun could be captured and called out. Mistakes other generations got to pretend never happened might get digitally preserved forever.  Your photo could easily end up on Twitter, in said compromising position. Most big U.S. and Canadian universities have Twitter accounts devoted to exposing public lip-lockers. BuzzFeed looked at some of the most popular feeds; from huge state schools to liberal arts colleges, higher education’s most intoxicated caresses are getting paparazzi-ed and put up for the world to see.

The “Makeout Twitter” trend probably makes regretful college students blush, but these novelty accounts are on the tame side of social media shaming. There’s a whole world of terrible, terrible social media trends out there.

In addition to locking lips, college students are getting extremely drunk and passing out in odd places. We’ve They’ve been doing this for years, of course, but now some of the most groan-inducing moments in a young person’s life are getting tweeted.

Along the same equally grody line as the “Makeouts” trend is the “Passouts” trend – people at colleges start novelty Twitter accounts where they take pictures of their incredibly wasted peers and post them for the world to see. Students are slightly less amused when they’re caught by the cameras:

There’s a website called “The Dirty” where people can submit their own gossip. It’s like Perez Hilton in his dick-drawing days, but for everyday people. You can select the city you live in, or the college you attend, and read through nasty story after nasty story. Their pictures are posted for the world to see along with salacious summaries of their misbehavior. If your photo gets put up, you can complain to the moderator to take it down, but the damage will likely be done. Needless to say, there’s no fact-checking, so it’s basically a slander service. And it’s enormously popular.

While these are profoundly creepy and awful, at least they’re fair (in most cases): You are in public getting drunk and lascivious (or passing out, as the case may be). And men and women are both targets here; it’s equal opportunity shaming. 

Slut-shaming, the Web-wide trend that just won’t die

Everybody loves selfies. But if you’re a young woman and you think you look cute and you snap a self-portrait and upload it, you risk getting criticized. One minute you feel happy and confident, only to be torn down the next. If other people think you’re being too risque, the merciless jabs are endless. They make Joan Rivers look like Joan of Arc.

Last year, a “slut-shaming” meme popped up on Tumblr. Girls made snarky instructional posts aimed at other girls about dressing too provocatively. A few posts in particular went viral but the practice is commonplace.

In Sweden, an anonymous Instagram account targeted both boys and girls around 13-14 years old. People sent in photos and descriptions of these barely-teens, detailing sexual exploits and calling them “sluts.”  The poster, believed to be a 17-year-old girl, published over 200 photos, amassing thousands of followers. And people didn’t take it lying down, with thousands engaging in a real-life riot ensued outside of the alleged perpetrator’s Gothenburg-area high school:

The riot is an extreme example, but not that extreme: “Slut-shaming” is just another form of cyber-bullying, which has led to high-profile suicides over the past few years. In comparison to the death of an innocent teen, this after-school kerfuffle looks positively tame.

It’s also the tip of the iceberg; slut-shaming has become a viable Internet activity. The trend of people using social media to slut-shame their peers is bolstered by tons of prominent Internet users reinforcing the idea that people whose sexual behavior does not conform to conservative social mores are worthy of name-calling and degradation. Even the normally female-friendly YouTube star Jenna Marbles devoted a video to shaming promiscuous women.

Can we banish shame from the Internets?  

The “slut-shaming” trend isn’t good for anyone. It reinforces a narrow, sexist standard of female behavior and, at the end of the day, it’s malicious and benefits no one. The incomparable Tina Fey put it best in, ahem, Mean Girls: “You have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores.”

And the onslaught of Twitter accounts and websites devoted to shaming people for their bad behavior are equally harmful. They slut-shame and behavior-shame young people in a way that could haunt them for years to come. 10 years ago, if you went to a party and had too much Jungle Juice and acted like a moron, you’d feel ashamed the next day – but that embarrassment wouldn’t be broadcast for everyone to see. To your friends. To your teachers. To your future employers and parents. Internet anonymity is vanishing, and when our mistakes get cataloged online, they’re harder to move past. Young people who find themselves the target of this type of shaming can feel worthless, and in way too many cases, this feeling of worthlessness translates into self-harm.

Shame can be a powerful motivator, and it can help you break bad habits and improve your life. But there’s a gaping difference between deciding to use shame to motivate yourself and to have someone else try to teach you lesson – because really, why does anyone with a Tumblr account think they’re the arbiter of what we should feel bad about?

The way people are degrading each other by broadcasting socially inappropriate behavior is cruel, unhelpful, and deeply disturbing. There’s really nothing positive to draw from it, except perhaps a deeper understanding of how our lives – even when we don’t record or publish certain parts – are ending up online. The line between public and private is disappearing, and the chances of mistakes leaving a lasting digital footprint continue to increase. And unfortunately it’s especially dangerous for young people: They are the generation that has grown up online, and there is ample opportunity for their dumb mistakes to be cataloged and used against them. Mark my words: Gone are the days when that shameful thing you did freshman year of college will live and die solely on a diary page. 

Top image courtesy of Yuri Arcurs/Shutterstock

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Kate Knibbs
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Kate Knibbs is a writer from Chicago. She is very happy that her borderline-unhealthy Internet habits are rewarded with a…
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