I love this brave and thoughtful Salon essay by Caitlin Seida so very much: My embarrassing picture went viral. It begins:
I logged onto my Facebook one morning to find a message from a girlfriend. “You’re internet famous!” it read. She sent a link to a very public page whose sole purpose was posting images that mock people’s appearances. There I was in full glory — a picture of me dressed as my hero Lara Croft: Tomb Raider for Halloween — but written over the image were the words “Fridge Raider.”
Initially, she wasn’t angry, but then she saw some of the comments:
“What a waste of space,” read one. Another: “Heifers like her should be put down.” Yet another said I should just kill myself “and spare everyone’s eyes.” Hundreds of hateful messages, most of them saying that I was a worthless human being and shaming me for having the audacity to go in public dressed as a sexy video game character. How dare I dress up and have a good time!
We all know the awful humiliation of a person laughing at you. But that feeling increases tenfold when it seems like everyone is laughing at you. Scrolling through the comments, the world imploded — and took my heart with it.
In addition to issuing takedown requests to various web sites — which she was able to do because the photo was hers — she also confronted people directly about their nasty comments:
…Facebook made it easy to find people who had commented on the images. By now, the picture had metastasized through reposts on Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, 9Gag, FailBlog. But looking through the Facebook “like” function, I could track down the most offensive commenters.
Most of them were women. Shocked? I wasn’t. Anyone who’s survived high school can tell you how women slice each other up to make ourselves feel better. I sent several of those women a message.
“You’re being an asshole,” the note said. “Why don’t you just do the right thing and delete the post and stop sharing it?”
The most common response was not remorse or defensiveness but surprise. They were startled that I could hear what they’d been saying. Their Facebook pages were set to private, after all. Most didn’t realize that when you post to a public page through your Facebook account, it doesn’t matter that your own content is restricted: The whole world can read your words anyway.
And of course, they hadn’t really thought of me as a person. Why should they? These images are throwaways, little bursts of amusement to get through a long workday. You look, you chuckle, you get some ridicule off your chest and move on to the next source of distraction. No one thought about the possibility that I might read those words. Far less, that I would talk back.
Read that last paragraph again. Personally, I’m going to be more careful about the funny things I share. I don’t want to be even a small part of any social media wave that makes a decent person’s life miserable.
Of particular concern, I think, are seemingly hilarious commentaries on the supposedly bad behavior of other people, such as this one by Elan Gale: This Man Is Hilariously Live-Tweeting His Flight-and-Feud With The Woman in #7A. I thought it mildly funny until I read the other side of the story: Bullying at 35 thousand feet. Of course, I have no way to determine the veracity of either story: both might be inventions. Yet the incident is instructive, I think. As I posted to Facebook:
It seems high time for everyone (including me!) to be suspicious of reports of god-awful behavior by random strangers. Perhaps the story is fabricated or embellished — or perhaps the circumstances aren’t quite what they seem — or perhaps the person who “schooled” the jerk just enjoys feeling like a self-righteous, sanctimonious prick. Surely, any truly awful person isn’t going to reform due to being the laughingstock of the internet… and it’s too likely that a good person will be unjustly vilified instead.
I love laughter, I really do… but there’s plenty of funny in the world without being unjust or malicious.