Subway Fracas Escalates Into Test Of the Internet's Power to Shame

By Jonathan Krim
Thursday, July 7, 2005

If you no longer marvel at the Internet's power to connect and transform the world, you need to hear the story of a woman known to many around the globe as, loosely translated, Dog Poop Girl.

Recently, the woman was on the subway in her native South Korea when her dog decided that this was a good place to do its business.

The woman made no move to clean up the mess, and several fellow travelers got agitated. The woman allegedly grew belligerent in response.

What happened next was a remarkable show of Internet force, and a peek into an unsettling corner of the future.

One of the train riders took pictures of the incident with a camera phone and posted them on a popular Web site. Net dwellers soon began to call her by the unflattering nickname, and issued a call to arms for more information about her.

According to one blog that has covered the story, "within days, her identity and her past were revealed. Requests for information about her parents and relatives started popping up and people started to recognize her by the dog and the bag she was carrying," because her face was partially obscured by her hair.

Online discussion groups crackled with chatter about every shred of the woman's life that could be found, and with debate over whether the Internet mob had gone too far. The incident became national news in South Korea and even was discussed in Sunday sermons in Korean churches in the Washington area.

Humiliated in public and indelibly marked, the woman reportedly quit her university.

Using the Internet as a tool to settle scores is hardly new. Search for any major retailer and you'll probably also find some kind of Web site, with complaints about products or service.

Increasingly, the Internet also is a venue of so-called citizen journalism, in which swarms of surfers mobilize to gather information on what the traditional media isn't covering, or is covering in a way that dissatisfies some people.

But what happens when the two converge, and the Internet populace is stirred to action against individuals?

The Dog Poop Girl case "involves a norm that most people would seemingly agree to -- clean up after your dog," wrote Daniel J. Solove, a George Washington University law professor who specializes in privacy issues, on one blog. "But having a permanent record of one's norm violations is upping the sanction to a whole new level . . . allowing bloggers to act as a cyber-posse, tracking down norm violators and branding them with digital scarlet letters."

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