If Jon Ronson could have chosen a better time to release his new book, I’m not sure when that might have been. The idea behind So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed has never been more relevant. That is, that we’ve entered into a period online that’s increasingly dominated by mobs of users shouting down, shaming, those with whom they disagree, or who have committed some perceived error. Case du jour: Trevor Noah, the new host of the Daily Show.
It turns out, Noah has made some very bad jokes on Twitter in the past, including some about Jewish people and women. Not just stupid, the jokes weren’t remotely funny, which some have pointed out might be the most pressing worry for fans of a comedy program. But the comedy worries were quickly overshadowed by how offended everyone was when the tweets were uncovered. For his comedic misfires, Noah was taken to the proverbial Internet stocks and pelted with fruit. And it remains unclear at this point when the shaming will end, if ever.
That was just this week. Next week will likely bring yet another example, and the week after that likely another still.
We can reasonably assume that if you’re not usually someone who says offensive things, the Internet as it exists is not all that terrifying. Just keep yourself to yourself, don’t post anything you wouldn’t say in polite company, and all will be fine. Hopefully.
But who knows? Maybe your remark to a handful of Twitter followers or Facebook friends suddenly grabs wider attention, via re-tweet or re-post, and you find yourself caught in a maelstrom. There might be some defence of what you’ve said, or there might not be. The larger point is that each time you say something online, you risk being forever defined by it. Maybe it’s just better, one might conclude, to leave the Internet altogether.
Yet that will soon be impossible. The line between being ‘on’ the Internet at some point, and ‘off’ it at another, is becoming increasingly blurred. Amazon’s new Dash button is a sign of things to come, even if that might be a descent into disquieting boredom. The Internet of things is not coming; it’s here.
Which means that, eventually, you will be unable to escape the Internet. Forget taking a break from technology. And being connected all the time through your Google login or your Facebook account, or via something like Amazon’s Dash button, will mean that not only are you online continually (or, at least, continually connected in some manner) but that the Internet will come to know everything about you.
And I do mean you – your name, your address, your likes and dislikes, your rate of coffee consumption, how often your child needs a fresh diaper, and so on.
Not long ago, we collectively decided (or perhaps were convinced) that the Internet knowing who you are is a good thing, both for ease of use and civility. Shopping and searching are certainly better when the system knows you. Even online comments and Twitter accounts, we think, ought to lead back to someone’s real name and face. Anonymity online is, for the most part, seen now as a cover for the cowards, or even as a devious thing. As Mark Zuckerberg once put it: “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”
Is it? Or is it actually a very smart way to navigate the Internet?
Jacob Silverman makes a strong case for the latter in his book Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Communication. Because when your name and face are always matched to what you do online – where you go, what you buy, who you talk to – not only is your identity commoditized (the data gathered from your movements is used to sell advertising, among other things), your activity is also open to all sorts of scrutiny, perhaps unfairly.
“Everything is perceived to reflect a deliberate intent – when you’re shopping for new shoes, posting on someone’s wall, or, whether for research or on a lark, you decide to read Dabiq, the Islamic State’s English-language magazine,” Silverman writes. “It is all supposed to be part of you, which is why it must be tracked.”
Maybe we can’t go back to a fully anonymous Internet, but the new status quo as Silverman describes it is cause for worry, because it’s not just the computers that are jumping to conclusions. As individuals, we have begun to mimic the bots, and often operate under the same general assumption that we are what we do. Not only are we “creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland,” as Ronson wrote recently but one where we can’t make mistakes.
This matters – not necessarily because what we do online may not accurately reflect who we are, but that self-definition may start to work in the other direction. That is to say, we think we can control who we are online, and that we can define that representation as we wish. However, we may discover that who we purport to be online will start defining us. It may not be us, but we will soon be it.
Which means that in the end, our clicks and searches amount to limitations, not freedom. We may find our online activity – soon to be constant – creates for us a persona that we can never change, or at least never escape. The Internet never forgets, as they say.
All of which is not to excuse those who have publicly erred online. Rather, it’s to say that to assume by default we are each the summary of our online activity is unwise. One could argue that it’s better that we know now, thanks to his official verified Twitter account, that Trevor Noah has made bad, inappropriate, jokes. Perhaps that’s true.
In his defence, he tweeted: “To reduce my views to a handful of jokes that didn’t land is not a true reflection of my character, nor my evolution as a comedian.” Maybe that’s true, too.