If you’ve been anywhere on the Internet these past few days, chances are you’ve come across the video of Miss Utah flubbing one of her answers in the Miss USA Pageant. The clip has become the did-you-see-that? video of the week and has rendered Miss Utah the target of derision, mockery, and guiltless schadenfreude. Few commenters, bloggers, and tweeters have expressed anything resembling second-thoughts about anonymously taunting Miss Utah’s butchered answer, with justifications ranging from “It’s just mild teasing” to “Calling out dumb people for their idiocy is important” to “I dunno, it’s just fun to mock her, I guess.” I’m not entirely sure why we collectively believe that public shaming is perfectly acceptable, nor am I entirely sure what role the Internet plays in reinforcing that belief, but the exploration of potential answers leads to some dark places.
Of course, poking fun at such “bloopers” isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, and it would be disingenuous to treat it as such. Long before YouTube existed, shows like America’s Funniest Home Videos and Candid Camera, along with one-off compilation episodes of stupid game show answers, were all popular (and supposedly non-cruel) vectors for laughing at strangers’ embarrassment. While these shows were able to be broadcast in every TV-owning American household, the type of schadenfreude they employed, exploited, and encouraged was/is of an ancient variety; comedy has always involved, at varying levels of explicitness and emphasis, the mockery of others. What we’re dealing with here is by no means a new phenomenon.
However, while the style of that kind of comedy is old, the form of it is radically different in the Information Age. Consider a hypothetical example (or dig up some YouTube clips and find a real example) of a woman on, say, The Newlywed Game providing the host with a bone-headed response to an easy question, the type of astoundingly dumb answer guaranteed not only to be laughed at on the spot but to be included in the show’s bloopers episode as well. Not only would that woman experience in-the-moment embarrassment, knowing her answer was idiotic, but she’d experience embarrassment knowing potentially millions of people would have opportunities to see replays of her brain-fart and laugh at her, too. On a surface level, this appears similar to what a contemporary target of public derision like Miss Utah is experiencing now. Embarrassment in the time of the Internet, however, is an entirely different beast.
For the sake of argument, let’s ignore the whole video-sharing practice that would expose someone like Miss Utah to more viewers than our hypothetical Newlywed Game contestant would have been exposed to via cable television. It doesn’t really matter that more people have the opportunity (thanks to the Internet) to mock someone like Miss Utah, it’s that she has more opportunity to see the mockery. Our hypothetical Newlywed Game contestant could “know” that millions of strangers out in the world are laughing at her display of idiocy, but that knowledge isn’t solid—it’s an abstract fear, a sort of worried paranoia, one that would be nearly impossible to confirm. Miss Utah, on the other hand, can quantifiably measure (via tweets, blog comments, et al.) the amount of derision and vitriol directed her way. There is no abstraction, no “wondering” if people are laughing it her; they are, they’re unabashed about it, and she knows it. She may not actually read every mean tweet or snarky blog post, but it’s unfathomable that such ubiquitous mockery would “surprise” her in the Internet Age.
Does this make the mockery intrinsically “meaner” or somehow more like bullying than teasing? I don’t know, but it does get to the heart of what I think is one of our most interesting uses of the Internet: to reinforce that we are “smarter” than others. If you were to ask a random guy on the street if he considered himself smarter than the average American, it’s hard it imagine someone that wouldn’t answer with the affirmative. That’s not exactly shocking; people don’t tend to celebrate being dumb and don’t seek to perpetuate a reputation of possessing substandard intelligence. Watching this phenomenon manifest itself on the Internet is fascinating. We seem obsessed with providing example of tweets, Facebook status updates, and video comments that show how ignorant most people are, and it’s hard to say whether that fixation comes from a place of insecurity or simple callousness or something entirely weird and new.
Consider the “articles” (though I hesitate to call what is just a collection of tweets an “article”) that came out after Margaret Thatcher died or after Barack Obama was re-elected. Read them: what was their purpose? Each of those articles can be boiled down to a simple and non-surprising statements like “Some young people, especially Americans, may not know who Margaret Thatcher was” and “Some people, especially Republicans, may have been displeased that Obama was re-elected.” That’s it. Not exactly ground-breaking material, huh? However, an “article” that only consists of those self-evident statements wouldn’t attract hundreds of thousands of unique page views from Thatcher acolytes or Obama supporters. Instead, by using tweets from uninformed or enraged people, the writers of said articles are demonstrating the risible ignorance of others in a public manner deliberately designed to induce shame–it’s like a “show, don’t tell” poetry lesson in concrete imagery taken to a strange extreme. Not only are they “proving” people are “stupid,” and therefore positioning themselves as obviously “not stupid,” they’re encouraging readers to laugh at said people, too. This, to me, is troubling.
Why do we need such frequent proof that we are “smarter” than other people? Are we that insecure? Also: why do we continue to act surprised that certain people may have different views or different levels of intelligence than us? It’s not exactly mind-blowing that a conservative voter would take to Twitter in outrage after Obama beat Romney in the last election; I’m sure plenty of Obama supporters would have done the same if the outcome was reversed. Yet it seems like after every big pop-culture event, websites desperate for page views scour social media hangouts like Twitter and Facebook to find the most “ignorant” responses worth mocking, as if it is somehow shocking that polemical issues produce diverse opinions, as if it is somehow startling that a person’s knee-jerk reaction may not be well thought-out. All I can say in response to this judgement-disguised-as-”surprise” is: Duh. For example: is it a good thing that virulent racism exists on the Internet? No, not at all. But is it surprising that virulent racism exists on the Internet considering how much Web access is expanding and how many more people are embracing social media as a means of expressing themselves? No, not at all. As the Internet continues to reflect (and replace?) more and more of society, it’ll reflect more and more of the virtues as well as the flaws. That’s inevitable.
The most helpful way to understand this phenomenon of culturally approved mockery is understanding how “Internet culture” has absorbed a lot of the worst characteristics of “celebrity tabloid culture,” creating an environment where all derision is fair-game. Pick up a tabloid or, hell, any newspaper, really. Watch the news, or what masquerades as the “news” in 2013. Go to any entertainment blog. It doesn’t take a deep perusal of such media to see that we have no qualms with mocking celebrities, with photographing them in a bad light and writing about how they’ve “really let themselves go,” with speculating about wild sex rumors, with writing snarky insults that degrade their intelligence and/or person-hoods. After all, what do such mean comments matter, right? I mean, those celebrities are multi-millionaires; they chose to be in the public eye, ergo every invasion of privacy or caustic aspersion is justifiable, right? If they didn’t want to be mocked, they’d pick a less visible career: simple as that.
It doesn’t take a genius to see the flaws with this troubling line of oft-held reasoning. First, it isn’t as if celebrities aren’t people. It’s not like they’ve forfeited all right to be treated decently because they happen to have a career that is very public. For an interesting study of this, check out the documentary Heckler on Netflix. Watching various stand-up legends verbally demolish hecklers is certainly good entertainment, yet the best part of the documentary is host Jamie Kennedy’s journey to the homes of various bloggers and reviewers who brutally trashed Malibu’s Most Wanted—we’re talking writers who said, in what they though was a perfectly acceptable “humorous” tone, that Kennedy should commit suicide because the movie was so bad. Watching Kennedy have these reviewers read their hatchet-jobs out loud to his face is compelling, and watching him question them about the impulses that drive them to such deplorable levels of cruel mockery is deeply revealing. None of the writers seem apologetic, even when Kennedy is visibly demonstrating how hurt by their words he is, and such callousness speaks volumes about how we tend to view celebrities as bullet-proof, as inhuman, as lacking the capacity to be hurt by us “mere” commoners.
I bring all this up not because I’m a Jamie Kennedy fan, but because such blatant disregard for “famous” peoples’ feelings is rampant on the Internet; it’s the same practice, except the standard for who is “famous” has shifted dramatically. Because the power of (potentially) “going viral” creates an environment where any ol’ random person may actually become real-world famous, and because what one posts on the Internet is irrefutably a conscious choice (and choice that is public), “celebrity” has gone from referring to millionaire actors to anyone and everybody. It has made every mistake ripe for public shaming; it has made ruining someone’s personal reputation in the name of driving page views justifiable because, hey, if they didn’t want their reputation besmirched they wouldn’t have done that stupid thing, right? In this day and age, you can ensure the person you’re mocking knows you are mocking them, and if they are hurt, well, tough luck: by being on the Internet, they were tacitly agreeing to all the terrible aspects of being a “celebrity” without any of the benefits.
(Note: I should mention, and I probably should have mentioned this earlier, honestly, that I’m not above such displays of callousness. Anybody willing to dig back through my FanSided archives will find numerous cheap shots taken at the likes of Skip Bayless, Tom Brady, Kobe Bryant, and a slew of other recognizable, famous, A-list names. I wrote these insults without hesitation, and will probably write other such jibes without hesitation in the future. This whole article, then, isn’t a condemnation of “all of you” from my enlightened, holier-than-thou position; I’m part of the problem as well.)
The situation with Miss Utah exemplifies the mechanics, justifications, and problems with turning everyone on the Internet into a “celebrity”. On one hand, there is very logical reasoning behind turning her into a target of mockery. Her interest in pageantry necessitates that she has a very public personae, a personae that is actively judged at said pageants. When she goes up on stage, especially at a nationally televised competition, she is aware at how many sets of eyes are scrutinizing her every move, marking her down for every mistake or misstep. Replaying her botched answer, then, may not seem all that different than replaying, say, a botched DeAndre Jordan free-throw, but there is a key difference between the two. While an athlete flubbing a basic task is certainly risible, the mockery of said athlete tends not to encapsulate that athlete as a whole. Making fun of DeAndre Jordan’s free-throw incompetence doesn’t translate to saying he’s incompetent as a basketball players (he’s a good rebounder, great shot-blocker, and vicious dunker), nor does it translate to saying DeAndre Jordan is somehow an incompetent person. The reason the mockery isn’t extrapolated out that far is because there is enough video evidence showing the things he excels at; because Deandre Jordan is a true celebrity, there is enough information about him to demonstrate his inarguable talent; his flaws are minimized, outweighed by his skills. Miss Utah, however, is a “celebrity” in the Internet sense; she is now a public figure without any representation of her as a whole, reduced to merely her singular inglorious moment. All information that will come out about her now will be filtered through the lens of her bumbling answer; it is hard to imagine people putting in the effort to actually learn about her beyond that moment, to try and see her as anything but a walking punchline. How many of the “Boom Goes the Dynamite” guy’s good, redeemable qualities do you know?
Of course, trying to define the demarcation line between “offensive” and “inoffensive” humor always sparks foolhardy, tired, and ultimately futile debates. There is no clear answer that will satisfy everyone, and while certain helpful guidelines have been hashed out (such as with joking about rape), a be-all-end-all solution isn’t realistic. I’m not really interested in telling people what they should and shouldn’t joke about; I have nowhere near the clout, expertise, or authority to feel justified in delineating right from wrong. What I am interested in, however, is how the medium of the Internet creates an environment where we all feel comfortable mocking everyone and anyone, and not even anonymously. Questions about this will grow increasingly important as “things on the Internet”—be it comments, tweets, photos, posts, you name it—have more and more real-world repercussions. Perhaps I’m just pessimistic, but it is hard for me to imagine how such a trajectory doesn’t lead to more hostility, more judgment, more denigration of strangers in an effort to feel morally or intellectually superior while simultaneously guaranteeing the specific strangers one feels morally or intellectually superior to experience shame. Our words, even our words on a message board or in a blog article that nobody reads (my expertise!), matter, and it will become increasingly harder to ignore their impact as the Internet evolves. This is not to say that you’re tantamount to a cyber-bully if you wrote a snarky tweet about Miss Utah—that would be an outrageous comparison—nor is this to say that insult-comedy is “off limits,” but as such online shaming becomes more prevalent, accepted, and profitable, it may be wise to engage in a bit of reflection.