What a Turkey: Enforcing Community Norms

Over American Thanksgiving weekend 2013, the twitterverse was abuzz over a clash between reality TV producer Elan Gale and fellow airline passenger “Diane”—a confrontation live-tweeted by Mr. Gale himself.   Mr. Gale first recounts Diane’s conversation with a flight attendant and is clearly disapproving of Diane’s behaviour.  The confrontation then takes off with Mr. Gale sending notes (thoughtfully pictured in his twitter updates) to Diane in her seat castigating and insulting her.  The tale ends with both passengers getting off the flight, whereupon Diane slaps Gale. 

Though Mr. Gale’s accounts of the confrontation were initially greeted with great delight, subsequent discussion delved into other issues including the his own behaviour, readings of the incident that focussed on underlying misogyny and  privilege implicit in Mr. Gale’s behaviour and concern about the ethics  of live-tweeting private conversations. 

On 2 December, Gale admitted that the whole fracas (and indeed Diane herself) was his own invention and had not happened.   Why a blog post about it then?  Well, because the “event” and people’s responses to it shines a light on several interesting aspects of online privacy, identity, and reputation. It is an opportunity to take a closer look at the phenomenon of publicly exposing the behaviour of others, and/or online “shaming.” Is this a new assault on privacy rights? Or, in fact, extensions of traditional practices of social regulation, created and employed by communities to reinforce chosen social norms. 

Online shaming

Daniel Solove has written about the “dog poop girl” -- an incident where photos of a girl allowing her dog to poop on the train and not cleaning it were taken on a metro train and posted to the internet.  Solove uses this incident as an example of how privacy is not a binary public/private switch but needs to be understood in a more nuanced way.  Just because this happened on a public train, he says, doesn’t automatically make it public.  Instead, privacy issues need to be assessed by looking at the situation in its full context, including the way(s) that a particular incident’s character may be changed by stripping it of context, disseminating it and making it “permanent and widespread.” 

The genesis of the Holla Back project in 2005 shows a similar appeal to community shaming.  A woman riding the subway one afternoon had a man sit down across from her, take his penis out of his pants, and begin masturbating.  Uncomfortable, she took a picture of him.  She reported the incident to a police officer, but she posted the photo and an account of the incident on Flickr and Craigslist.  The photo and report were reproduced in the New York Daily Mail the next day, which lead more than two dozen people to come forward with similar complaints about the offender who was then arrested and charged with public lewdness.   Interestingly, the perpetrator has spoken publicly about what he portrays as the inappropriateness of her actions in publicizing the photo and his actions. 

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What these incidents have in common is the aspect of public shaming – what could have been a fleeting moment is instead recorded and made publicly available.  In both cases, public outrage erupted – people disapproved of these actions and articulated that disapproval (albeit targeting the individual as much as if not more than the action itself). 

This is not a phenomenon unique to the internet.   Rather, it is simply the technologization of the traditional means of establishing and maintaining mainstream community norms. 

Community norms and their enforcement

Norms are social constructions, the product of tacit negotiation and collective awareness. They are enforced both implicitly and explicitly, not necessarily via central authorities but within a community.  Social norms are promulgated and enforced through social interactions, and a key regulatory power of the community is shaming.  It is important to note, too, that shaming tends to target the individual, not the action.

While shaming can involve a direct confrontation with the norm-breaker, more often it is achieved via gossip.  Although traditionally disdained and dismissed as idle talk or rumour, gossip serves as an information exchange that promulgates, maintains and enforces social norms.  Shame acts to stigmatize those who transgress norms, and the threat of shame deters other individuals from such transgressions.

Identity and Reputation: Shaming the shamer

The fact that these incidents of shaming use technology or take place online does not make this a new phenomenon – community norms are evident in the response to the “dog-poop girl” or the subway flasher incidents.  Those responses do not occur in a vacuum, and it should not be presumed that they are of no effect.  Rather, when the community responds so strongly with disapproval, social norms about appropriate behaviour are articulated, enforced and reinforced.  This is exactly the traditional function of gossip and information sharing, and technologization does not change that.

In the end, the scenario that Elan Gale concocted and disseminated did generate community outrage, but not as he intended.  Mr. Gale’s efforts to focus disapproval on “Diane” backfired and online disapproval and shaming turned towards him, even more so now that he has revealed the whole thing was a hoax. Further evidence, perhaps, of the fact that community norms are socially negotiated. Interpretation and response to particular action cannot always be reliably enforced or predicted but rather occurs organically through community response.

Hoax or not, this incident and others like it show us the way in which the techno-social – the intersection of social norms and emerging technologies – can teach us lessons about ourselves and our world.  Some of the lessons may be new – but not all.  Some of them are as old as the hills.