Selfies and shaming — two things the Internet does best

December 4, 2013

A screenshot of the New York Post’s “suicide selfie” story on Wednesday.

Just when we thought humanity could sink no lower than duck-faced self portraits at funerals and concentration camp sites, the New York Post has devoted its entire Wednesday cover to what some are calling the “world’s worst selfie”: A woman posing, smartphone in hand, in front of the Brooklyn Bridge as a man prepares to jump off.

“SELFIE-ISH!” Screams the Post’s headline, which then goes on to decry a “new low” in America’s “selfie obsession.” They definitely got the “new low” bit right. But is it a new low for selfies — or for selfie shaming?

The New York Post, after all, just joined the dubiously proud viral tradition of Selfies at Funerals, Selfies at Serious Places and a host of other less buzzy Tumblrs, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds dedicated to the public humiliation of other people’s self-portraits. Nothing revs the Internet outrage machine quite like young people doing viscerally stupid or ignorant things online, as Selfies at Funerals has proved — the blog just ranked among Tumblr’s most viral of the year.

It helps that selfies are pretty easy to mock by their very nature, even when they aren’t utterly tone deaf. There’s a certain pained self-consciousness involved in taking a photo of oneself, particularly when said photo involves a mirror or a set of desperate, attention-seeking hashtags.

But shaming selfies, or any other personal bit of personal Internet output, is an ethically sticky undertaking — even when people really deserve it. Consider the disproportionate outcomes of other public shaming projects of the past three years: lawsuits, lifetimes of incriminating Google results, social media trolling, school expulsions, firings.

After the 2012 presidential elections, for instance, Jezebel republished the names and high schools of teens who sent racist tweets, prompting most of them to close their accounts. (“How much public ridicule or online condemnation is too much, and when does it cross over into outright bullying?” asked Mathew Ingram at Gigaom.) Not long after, a tech consultant famously complained on Twitter about two apparently sexist guys at a conference — provoking an onslaught of trolling that eventually got both her and one of the guys fired.

“Shaming, it seems, has become a core competency of the Internet, and it’s one that can destroy both lives and livelihoods,” Wired’s Laura Hudson wrote at the time. “But the question of who’s responsible for the destruction — the person engaging in the behavior or the person revealing it — depends on whom you ask.”

So it goes with the New York Post’s unwitting cover girl, whose identity we still don’t know. The photographer who took her picture got neither her name nor any confirmation that she even knew a man was preparing to jump off the bridge behind her. Paul Martinka would later tell the Daily Mail he’s sure only that she was a tourist — in other words, someone with a perfectly legitimate reason to take a picture at a major New York landmark.

Does that sound like the death knells of human decency, or a bit of destructive, low-hanging click bait meant to outrage and amuse us? In either case, it’s pretty “selfie-ish” — just maybe not the way that the New York Post’s headline-writers meant.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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