Social Anxieties and Public Shaming

I have been thinking a lot about what social meeting has spawned in terms of trends in public shaming. I think it has triggered a whole new realm of social anxieties that never before existed, that are born out of the fear of being the next viral sensation…but not in a good way.

Obviously social anxieties have existed as long as humans have gathered in groups, I’m a perfect example as I vividly remember panic attacks at social gatherings long before social media was even a thing. But in the last 5-10 years – with the rise easy to use camera phones and social media – new social anxieties have emerged in me and I’ve seen them in other people.

There are so many ways in which we can be publicly shamed now. And for the record, I’m not talking about big bigoted faux pas like wearing a blackface costume or doing the Nazi salute in a group photo.  That’s a different kind of public shaming that I also have feelings about – but this is NOT what I’m talking about in terms of triggering new social anxieties. Most of us (hopefully) don’t worry every day about accidentally being documented doing something racist or homophobic or antisemitic.

I’m talking about small moments in public where someone else decides you should be embarrassed and therefore documents it and posts it to their social media.

Just this week I’ve seen the following from REAL PEOPLE on social media. These are not public things going viral (yet?), these are recent posts from people I know at least VERY VERY casually. (For the record, no one I would call a friend would share out this kind of crap. AT LEAST I HOPE NOT.)

  1. A full-figured woman wearing nude/peach colored tights photographed from behind with snarky comments about whether or not someone thought the person was naked at first. There were several *shudder* type comments. 
  2. A picture of the back of someone’s car and their license plate with a one-sided account of how terrible the person was driving and of the ensuing altercation upon confrontation.
  3. A secret video of someone dancing at a wedding where the person taking the video was commenting on how short the dress was and the person was about to turn the reception “adult themed” if they weren’t careful.

We all see this kind of stuff from people we know in the real world, and then on the other end of the spectrum we see posts like that going viral where someone is trying to shame a parent, or make fun of someone’s difficulty parking, or snarking on someone body type and their outfit choice. We have ALL seen those posts go viral and I believe now we ALL suffer from unique social anxieties – unique to this generation – where we are always a LITTLE bit worried it’s going to be us next time.

My neighborhood Facebook group periodically has someone post a one-sided testimony to someone’s bad driving with a photo of their car AND their license plate to go along with it. Maybe it’s because I drive such a unique car and because I admit that I’ve made mistakes while driving before, but every time I see those posts and photos I worry it’s going to be me. How horrible would that be to see someone post a picture of your car in your neighborhood FB group with a message that basically says: THIS PERSON IS TERRIBLE. 

It happened again yesterday and I finally messaged the admins of the group and said, “If the point is to encourage good driving, I don’t think this is necessarily making a difference but it could really ruin someone’s day to be broadcast in this manner without their side of the story being told.” I recounted the story about how – 10+ years ago now – I was a quarter mile from home when my kid started puking in the backseat and I was reaching back trying to put my hand on them to soothe them when I accidentally ran a stop sign. It was a small moment of error that THANK GOD did not end in injury or harm but HOLY SHIT. What if someone had taken a picture of my car then and slammed me in the neighborhood Facebook group? THAT IS MY NIGHTMARE.

I don’t know if they’ll implement a “no pictures of cars/license plates” policy like I requested, but I do think we all need to step back a moment before we try to shame people. Every time I see a photo of someone shaming them for their driving/outfit/dancing I want to ask the person: “What is the point in sharing this?” I think it all boils down to raising ourselves up at the expense of others. And I think the ease at which social media allows us to do this, is making us all paranoid and uncomfortable about making mistakes in social situations. 

So I messaged the admins in my neighborhood group, but what about the next time someone shares out a picture making fun of someone? Especially if I know that person is a “good person” – do I comment? Because I also do NOT want it to backfire as it SO OFTEN DOES if you call someone out on their behavior. So many times the person feels shame and digs in.

In the past I’ve done the, “This was what happened to me when I did the thing…” approach. Like, “I used to use the r-word casually too until someone whose sister has Down Syndrome called me out on it and now I know…” But I would NEVER post pictures making fun of someone’s clothes so I don’t know how to be like, “Um…I used to do the thing you’re doing too…” in that situation. But jeezus, guys. THIS HAS GOT TO STOP. It is making us all crazy fearing we’re going to be the next photo on People Of Wal-Mart. 

I don’t know. I just feel like the rise of shaming on social media has made us all a little bit more anxious in public than we used to be. AND I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN ANXIOUS IN PUBLIC. Now I’m paranoid every time I trip and fall, or park terribly, or say something stupid…that it’s going to be documented in perpetuity on someone’s Twitter account. And when I see people I know (casually or not) do that on THEIR social media I have no idea the “right” way to call them out, or even if I should at all.

3 Comments

  • Olivia

    There’s a wonderful book on this called So You’ve Been Publically Shamed, by Jon Ronson. It’s a great read explaining this phenomenon I guess you could call it.

  • Samantha

    I have these fears too. I was bullied in high school and my clothes were made fun of. I can easily imagine if that was today and having my photo shared out in the way you describe. I do occasionally feel that paranoia of what if I’m walking through the grocery store and someone is taking my picture and I have no control over that. I don’t think it’s ever happened, and that fear has not (so far) kept me from living my life, but man I hate that this is our reality now.

  • Beth Edwards

    I try to abide by the following. Never say anything or post anything about someone that I wouldn’t say to them. Do I ever gossip- yes.but that isn’t the goal.