Kate and I Talk Online Vigilantism & Shaming on the Awl

December 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

no no no

After about 50 rounds of edits (THIS WAS NOT AN EASY ARTICLE TO WRITE), Kate Miltner and I finally finished our latest Awl piece on online shaming/vigilantism. We are much indebted to Carrie Frye at the Awl for her fantastic comments and revision suggestions, and her willingness to publish such a long read. Here is the opening section:

Whitney: Contrary to Nathan Heller’s Onion-worthy New York Magazine article lamenting the loss of the “hostile, predatory, somewhat haunted” feel of early web, the internet of 2012 is not always a warm and fuzzy place. In fact it can be pretty terrible, particularly for women, a point Katie J.M. Baker raises in her pointed response to Heller’s article. The internet is so far from a utopian paradise, in fact, that lawmakers in the USUK, and Australia are scrambling to do something, anything, to combat online aggression and abuse.

Not everyone supports legal intervention, of course. Academics like Jonathan Zittrain readily concedethat online harassment is a major concern, but they argue that the laws designed to counter these behaviors risk gutting the First Amendment. A better solution, Zittrain maintains, would be to innovate and implement on-site features that allow people to undo damage to someone’s reputation, livelihood, and/or peace of mind. As an example, during an interview with NPR, Zittrain suggested that Twitter users could be given the option to update or retract “bad” information, which would then ping everyone who interacted with the original tweet. Existing damage would thus be mitigated, and draconian censorship measures rendered unnecessary.

Regardless of the impact that either type of intervention might have, the fact is that today, this very second, there is often little recourse against behaviors that might be deeply upsetting, but aren’t quite illegal either. In those cases, what should be done? What can be done?

If recent high-profile controversies surrounding ViolentacrezComfortably Smugracist teens on TwitterLindsey Stone and Hunter Moore are any indication, it would seem that many people, members of the media very much included, are increasingly willing to take online justice into their own hands. Because these behaviors attempt to route around the existing chain of command (within mainstream media circles, the legal system, even on-site moderation policies), I’ve taken to describing them as a broad kind of online vigilantism. It might not be vigilantism in the Dog the Bounty Hunter sense, but it does—at least, it is meant to—call attention to and push back against some real or perceived offense.

Full article here!


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