I’m about to make myself sound really old. Ready? I think social media may be the beginning of the end. Chaos theory in 144 characters. The loss of humanity, the end of humility, the beginning of the end of a beautiful march towards enlightenment. Yes, I know we all use it. Off Camera has benefited greatly from my being able to find an audience and reach out directly to fans of the show. I can share pictures with long-lost friends and I can connect with someone on the other side of the world over our shared love of skateboarding, or oysters. I can learn about restaurants and charities and secluded beaches and books that I otherwise never would have discovered. I freely admit it’s a revolution. But it is also something else.
Lately I’ve noticed a lot of stories popping up in the press around the old “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” theme. It seems nearly every day a friend will start a conversation with, “Did you see so-and-so is getting crushed on Twitter over that thing they said about such-and-such?” There was the Sony hack, the Ashley Madison breach and the on-air killing of television reporters posted on Facebook. Hell, now we’re told our cars aren’t safe because they can be infiltrated by hackers and led off bridges and into ravines. And every one of these stories spreads like a drought-fueled California wildfire through social media, almost as if it were currency. It’s as though everyone wants to be in on a conversation so badly, to have the latest news, and to have relevancy, that information is not only being spread indiscriminately, but also cloaked in opinion, criticism, and moral constructs. We breathlessly await the next scandal so we can take the shocked moral high ground on social media, tweeting it out in the guise of exposing something terrible in our society. And god forbid a celebrity should make a small mistake or an offhand comment, because that remark will quickly take on such proportion that the offender might as well have rented a helicopter and blanked the city with Nazi propaganda flyers.
Think for a minute (Angelinos, I’m looking at you) of the last time you were late, in traffic, and in a bad mood. Maybe you flipped someone off, maybe you rolled down the window and called someone a moron, or a motherfucker, or maybe you just laid on the horn for a good, long time because someone didn’t notice that the light turned green (and god help them if they were looking at their phone). We’ve all been there to some extent, I’m sure. But if you knew that the person in front of you was a parent at your school, or a neighbor, or someone you run into at the grocery store, you would never act that way. And that’s my point. Social media provides a buffer that allows us to disregard the humanity of the target of our shame, our anger, or our ridicule.
It’s ironic that a technology with “social” as its defining characteristic, one that was invented to bring us all closer together, is actually much better suited to doing the opposite. Social media allows us to devalue other human beings, trading their mistakes, missteps and human moments as coin of the realm. We point our fingers en masse, shaming anyone who makes a mistake, as if we ourselves have never had a moment we’d like to take back.
Fortunately, I am an adult and therefore grew up in a society where the largest public shaming came form of a crowd of laughing high school students who thought putting the scrawny freshman in a trash can or taping him to a tree was the height of entertainment. I was shamed – deeply – by those moments. I remember not telling my parents how I got the cut on my arm that was bleeding pretty good because I was so ashamed that I had to cut myself out of the duct tape that four students had used to wrap me up tight, dangling from a tree trunk. Why didn’t I tell them? I guess I thought I somehow deserved it, or caused it. After all, it wasn’t the tall, popular boys getting taped to trees. And now that I think back on it, the only help I got was from a teachers who saw me taped to the tree and loaned me her scissors. She didn’t even help me get down! But I digress…
When you’re a kid, you can’t intellectualize a public shaming or rise above ridicule. That ‘sticks and stones’ adage doesn’t really work, and a child’s personality can be forever altered by a heavy dose of bullying. And now they grow up in a world where the slightest misstep, or wrong choice of words, or any random physical characteristic is not only as ripe for ridicule and bullying as it always was, but also likely to lead to viral infamy.
I recently watched Picture Day, a film that stars a young Tatiana Maslany. In it, one character gives advice to a struggling high school student, basically telling him that when you get out of high school, it’s like getting a do-over, and you can be anyone you want. Not anymore. For a lot of kids, the chance that some mistake or mean comment will follow them well into adulthood is pretty high. We have this amazing piece of technology in our hands that’s a bag of candy and crack cross-bred with a rollercoaster and a Ferrari. It’s so fun and easy to get a charge out of Instagram or Twitter or Snapchat – of course kids are going to use it. And if adults can’t be counted on to use good judgment, imagine what kids can do to each other. As a parent, it scares the crap out of me to think that one of my daughters could have a bad day, and experience a public shaming that she has no tools to process.
So next time you feel the urge to comment on something and pass it on, think about the human on the other end who may just need to be given a pass. We all make mistakes. Let’s not make the mistake of forgetting our humanity.
Ellen Page knows something about shame, namely that it is toxic. It can prevent you from being who you are, from doing your best work, and from contributing something good and valuable to the world. Last year she came out as gay in a remarkable speech at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s “Time to Thrive” conference. It was a decision that had plagued her for years as she hid her true nature, fearful of the backlash and loss of work that might result from coming out. When she made the decision, she felt a terrible weight had been lifted from her shoulders, but acknowledges that her suffering was minor compared to kids who are in unsafe situations: hiding their sexuality for fear of very real, very dire consequences. Now, some of her best work includes making films she hopes will not only inspire others to do the same, but also provide a platform to tell their stories. One hopes Hollywood and the world in general will embrace that effort. I know a skinny kid with his legs sticking out of a trashcan who does.