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They Get What They Deserve: Lessons I hope we're learning through social media tragedy

The other day I listened to one of the most brilliant modern satirists, David Sedaris, talk about his new transition into fictional stories, where the main characters are animals (David Sedaris, Anatomizing Us In 'Squirrel' Tales). These aren't fables nor are they for children. They are instead modern Grimm's Fairy Tales of a sort -- although Sedaris claims they have no moral to them (I think they do, in fact -- any satire of a culture includes a lesson, if you think on it).

Sedaris said:
"Fables have morals, and not all of these do," he tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "So I wound up calling it a bestiary, which is just a book in which animals do things that people do."

In contrast to classic animal fables like Aesop's "The Tortoise and the Hare," there are few identifiably good characters in Sedaris' stories.

"I don't think our world is as black and white now," says Sedaris, who consciously avoided Aesop and La Fontaine as he put together the new collection. "Sometimes in these stories, you'd kind of be hard-pressed to try to sort of figure out who's the worst."
Has our moral and ethical line become horrifically blurry and dynamic, to the point that we --even those who self-identify as "good people" -- can't tell when we've crossed a boundary into harm?

The article shared an example of a tale that hit particularly close to home for me:
Several of Sedaris' tales were inspired by the unbecoming behavior of others. In "The Sick Rat and the Healthy Rat," a healthy lab rat belittles her dying neighbor by claiming that he brought the illness on himself with his "hatefulness and negative energy."

The inspiration? People Sedaris knew, suggesting that certain sick people deserved what they got.

"I would hear them talking like that, and I would think, 'When did you get crazy like that?' " he says. "So I sort of found pleasure in writing about it in a fictional way. Instead of doing what I would normally do. Which is just condemn them."
It's childlike, this immature concept that people deserve what they get and if they aren't doing well it's a personal failing. It's unevolved, this concept that if I can see you then what you are doing is "public" and I can use it as I will.

From the moment I first logged on to the Internet and began harnessing its power, back in the mid-90s, I've struggled with the proper boundaries. My first foray into social media included reading some of the very first bloggers, but eventually I joined the online conversation at Web sites with chat boards. I was astounded by, and frequently profoundly grateful for, the power and influence social networking carried.

I'll be the first to admit that the Web has changed me. I hope, though, it has never changed my core ethics, including the ones I hold very dear about respecting other people's dignity and humanity.

That's why I am so shocked to see my beloved tools and mediums used for evil, rather than good. That's why I don't understand sites that secretly photograph or film people and hold them up for public mockery.

In shock after hearing about the tragic suicide of Tyler Clementi, and the vicious and abhorrent actions of his roommate that precipitated it, I asked people on Facebook and Twitter what they thought. I got some really intriguing replies.

One, I thought, illuminated a crucial point about the value system that enables people to be cyberbullied and harassed online. Michael Thomas said, "If I end up on the People of Walmart buying a case of beer with my butt crack exposed, and everyone thinks that's really funny, whose fault is that?"

Hmm. Whose fault is it? Excellent question!

Do we really...really?...blame people for ending up in a situation that makes them look silly?

Do we really...really?...think they get what they deserve, deserve what they get?

Is there a fault here? Other than someone disrespecting your dignity by photographing this moment and mocking you online for thousands to see?

My husband answered the question this way, "You are responsible for the way you present yourself in public, but you're not at fault for times when the public uses this for their personal gain. And that's what this really is: stepping on people to get attention, to get perverted traffic, the big numbers."

Maybe I should write my own bestiary. Initially I thought it would be neat to play off the Adam and Eve story, with chipmunks entranced by a snake named Social Media. But then I thought, it's not the tools, it's us.

Maybe my new bumper sticker should read: "Social Media doesn't hurt people; People hurt people."

But then I thought, you know, I'm not of the Tech Native generation, so I asked someone who is. And he verified that people of Gen Y and younger think of social boundaries and privacy very differently, especially for online, than we, the elders who came to this technology as formed adults, do.

"We constantly involve our peers in our decision making, both important or trivial; and we're AWARE of what our peers are doing. I think that we share more both about ourselves and others. It's not anarchy- we still have sense of decency. Just less private," said Bradley Bowen.

On Facebook, my friend Tracee said, "My personal boundaries are that I won't do it if my friends or family don't want me to. With strangers, I try to factor whether they'd be embarrassed and whether they would be identifiable. That said, just the other day I posted a camping trip to FB thinking it would be the simplest way to share photos with the friends I went with, but I didn't think to ask first. It was just automatic. Took me 3 days to think, "Oh, they might not like that. I should ask them."

My friend Andrea combined the two points of view, and I inferred from what she said that it had more to do with generational differences (Tech Native generation versus older) than with age and maturity, although these are clearly factors, "I don't think they (and by "they," I do not refer to all teens any more than I would suggest all teens in my high school were bullies) have any sense that there are public/private issues at stake in posting embarrassing photos. For them, these technologies seem to be a part of their everyday lives to such an extent that they see them as simply "normal" and not related to questions of privacy in the slightest. That, I think, is where the real potential for harm lies."

My generation were instrumental in developing and furthering the Internet and social networks -- as with any user, we formed it, and while it formed us back, too, it was more of an informing versus an ethical shaping. Subsequent generations are being formed by it.

And what does that mean?

I think it means the concept of "just because you can do it doesn't mean you should" is getting lost. In my youth, we could not do it. Now, not only can youths do it, but they are encouraged at every turn to use the tools and their potential to the max, all the time.

Commercials demonstrate how iPads can be your everything, for example. Our world is full of Web sites that make fun of people, very, very popular Web sites. Crotchety bloggers get book, TV and movie deals, and a recent survey found that more kids (42%) today want to be a celebrity's assistant than the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a president of a college, or a Navy Seal. That stunned me.

Jake Halpern, who cited the study and its results in his book Fame Junkies, said, "That was twice as much as [the percentage who wanted to be] president of Harvard or Yale, three times as much as a U.S. senator, four times as much as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company."

Now I grant not everybody wants to be an academic, a politician, or a CEO. In fact, I doubt any of those would have appealed to me. But in essence, when asked would they rather be powerful, rich and successful or somebody's gofer, the kids chose not even fame itself but proximity to fame, instead. When did our aspirations get so low or askew?

I think it's part and parcel with this strive and drive for attention. And what better way to get attention than to post something that goes viral on the Internet? And what better way to go viral than to post something vulgar, intrusive and/or opprobrious, especially if it entails something easily mocked, and thus, entertaining and humorous.

Adrian Grenier, a truly interesting person, is branching again from acting to producing, with his new documentary Teenage Papparazzo. Grenier launched the project after an experience with a teenage papparazzo, his role on Entourage, and his experiences at the side of Paris Hilton. He thinks the celebrity culture reflects a shift in values.

"For a long time in our culture, there was an emphasis put on working hard [and] contributing to your society," he says. "Now it's not about that anymore. It's about the bling and how quickly you can get it without working."

The Internet, social media, and modern technology allow us all to become papparazzi. Cell phones with cameras and videos let us capture any moment, anywhere, anytime, and instantly upload it to the Web for anyone to see.

How do we know when that's okay and not? It seems quite clear to members of my generation who replied to me on Facebook and Twitter, when I asked.

Candace said, "I don't think it is ethical to photograph portraits of ordinary people without consent and then use those pictures for profit or mockery."

Josette said, "I would never upload photos of other people's kids. I don't know the comfort level of other parents nor their family situations. For instance, I'd feel horrible if I clued-in some crazed non-custodial parent as to a child's whereabouts. And it's not up to me to make decisions or judgments on other people's comfort level."

Josette's final sentence hits the nail on the head, I think, at least when it comes to my core code. And that's the very same code I want to teach my kids. I don't want them growing up thinking it's okay to choose other people's level of public sharing for them. I'm not comfortable with younger people's level of privacy (or what I perceive as lack thereof).

On Twitter I asked, "Are Gen X and older parents out of touch with how they need to teach their kids respect and boundaries within social and new technology media?"

Other than one friend saying she felt she had a good handle on it (she will hopefully share her secret) most said they were intrigued with what I'd learn from this question; in short, it seems we think our kids are more sophisticated with the tools and we're not sure if we're able to counteract the peer and societal messages.

I wonder what lessons and boundaries Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei's parents taught. Or didn't. And why the lessons didn't take on such a tragic level. I don't ask this judgmentally, but in a "is there any thing I can learn from this, do I have any hope of doing any better?" I know good parents raise good kids who do bad things sometimes. Frontal lobe. Science. Bill Cosby's "Brain Damage" comedy sketch.

Supporters and friends of this couple say they are nice, and friends can't believe they'd mean any harm. How can they -- and Dharun and Molly, and their defenders -- not see, not have anticipated, the harm in stealing and sharing such a private moment?

As social media shifts boundaries, and values shift too -- possibly as a result -- we have a tougher job as parents and society ensuring that we teach kids to respect others and always value the humanity in each of us.

More importantly, we have to teach them to take responsibility for their actions, and lay fault where it belongs: on their shoulders for their choices.

Not on their victim, simply for being accessible.

Entertainment, jokes, and fame are not justifiable ends for means that harm another this severely.

I hope David Sedaris does write about this. Maybe it's the very mirror we need.


S said…
Thought-provoking, as always, Julie. Thanks for this.
Anonymous said…
Julie - Thank you. I am thinking about these things all the time - because I am a genx parent of a tween boy. I feel sure we have imparted our values, but unsure of his ability to apply them independently in the face of the giant that is social media, plus peer pressure/behavior. So, we really don't allow him to have any access to the giant right now.

As an aside, I may write about this today - I think the power of positive thinking has a dark side. I take exception to the notion. I think you touched on that here and I am inspired.
Miss Britt said…
Excellent, thought provoking post, Julie.

And this:

"someone disrespecting your dignity by photographing this moment and mocking you online for thousands to see"

is the bottom line for me. And not OK.
Bon said…
yes, absolutely. the "just world" phenemenon, where we cling to the belief that things must happen for a reason, and thus those to whom they happen must be different from us.

in light of all the Education Nation talk in the US the past week...i wish i heard more about teaching kids to understand and use the power to express themselves responsibly. i think it makes more difference in a lot of individual lives (for good and bad) than testing.
Christine said…
wonderful, just a wonderful post.

when i said i am handling things with my kids in terms of their respect for privacy and social media i should have clarified. i guess what i meant to say is that i have a very good handle on teaching my kids personal space, respect, and concern for others in the REAL world. that isn't to say that the internet isn't the real world, but at this point my young kids do not have cell phones, i pads, laptops, and their internet use is limited to PBS kids or American Girl less than an hour a day. my hope is that by teaching them tried and true, old school manners, compassion, love, respect, and boundaries in their everyday life at school, on the bus, at home, at swimming lessons, judo, etc. that they will have a solid foundation with which to work with when they are given the (too?) powerful tools of social media

Christine said…
one more thing--a big fear of mine is the "anonymity" and distance the internet, etc. gives to people. it can be a very, very difficult thing to hurt someone right next to you, but it can be easier when there is physical distance between kids with the only connection being a keyboard on a laptop or cell phone. we've all seen how cruel some people can be when commenting on blogs, etc. would those cruel commenters say those same things directly to people's faces?

also, social media takes gossip to the extreme--instead of whispering in the locker room slander is posted on facebook. the extent to which one can spread lies and dish on others now is frightening.

what i guess i am trying to get at is that maybe we need to teach children that three are REAL people behind the computer screen. maybe if we teach our kids how to actually, physically speak to people (notice how rude kids are on the phone these days?)then perhaps they will have a better sense of the humanity behind the web.
Mariah said…
Excellent and thought provoking, thank you.
StarTraci said…

You really are my hero! (And your hubby is pretty smart, too!) As in so many things, social media is a tool that can be used positively or negatively.

Being of the Atari Generation (that's my new term -- I hate Generaion X), I think we have a different perspective. We remember life before answering machines, not to mention cell phones. If a friend had called me during dinner, I would not have been allowed to answer. Now I see multiple family members texting during dinner. We have to teach our children that gossiping, bullying, and cruelty are as real on-line as off. And respecting someone's dignity, if not privacy, is a constant value, even in the age of phone cameras and you tube.

Deb Rox said…
Brilliant, Julie, the way you lay this out.

Dignity is the essential bottom line I teach my kids. Do your actions degrade someone, a group of someones, yourself? Humor writers/comics talk about this all of the time--when does humor, even self-depricating humor, cross the line?

I am midway through the new Sedaris and it is brilliant. Scathing. Awesome. Insightful. One in particular, a hairdresser working on a cat's fleas and trying to bond by dissing other animals is amazing. The hairdressing animal finally successfully lands on hating dogs as a topic they can bond with, even though she admits to the reader than some of her best friends are dogs. I need to find that NPR interview, Sedaris is the best.
Magpie said…
This is interesting, Julie. I've not given a lot of thought to this - in the same way that Potter Stewart recognized pornography, I recognize inappropriate behaviors on the web. But it does need to be better articulated all around, because yes, we're living in that world and we need to keep reinforcing dignity and compassion and tolerance are what we should be doing - not cruelty, and malice, and intolerance.
Nicole Pelton said…
What a great post, boy do you do your research, using social media for good. Love that bumper sticker. I've got a much shorter post in the works about simple things I'm teaching my kids.

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