Cyber Status, Stigma, and Shame: Forces for good in the age of social media

I joined Facebook a couple of years ago and enjoyed connecting with, what was at that time, a relatively small group of friends and family. Then around last Christmas, a huge number of my college friends seemed to have purchased iPhones and joined Facebook at the same time. My network of friends doubled in a matter of a month or two. There was a flurry of postings and photos appearing in my news feed every day. What fun. In the midst of this posting frenzy, Roger, my brother-in-law, posted and tagged a photo of me from my sister’s wedding. The picture horrified me. After three kids I had gained twenty plus pounds, and the photo woke me up to the harsh reality that I was much farther away from the skinny girl image of myself than what I had in my head. And ten minutes after that picture appeared, a mutual friend commented, “Thanks Roger for posting. It is great seeing Graceann and her husband after all these years.” Maybe it was great for her to see me after all these years, because she has had three kids and looks positively amazing, and well, I didn’t. My horrid photo diminished my cyber status while simultaneously boosting hers as the better-preserved and infinitely “hotter” momma.

I quickly un-tagged the embarrassing photo of myself and realized that I had a few choices. One: cancel my Facebook account and escape the fear of similar photos of me showing up again for my all my friends and family to judge. Two: vigilantly attend to my Facebook account so I could quickly un-tag further hideous, shame-inducing photos. Three: get rid of the extra twenty pounds and firm up to ensure that no more horrid photos appear on Facebook ever again. I went with option number three. I got rid of the weight in six months and now have a lot less un-tagging to do.

So while many of my friends lament the rise of social media and how it has ruined our lives and damaged our society, I have to think that all this relentless and often brutal transparency actually has a positive side. For one, after countless diet attempts, the shame and stigma of being judged by my peers in the social media space was the thing that really motivated me to finally do whatever it took to ditch my excess weight.

This got me thinking. How else has this desire for cyber status coupled with the fear of social stigma and shame been a force for good?

Someone asks you to share the books you’ve read using Facebook’s Visual Books app, but you haven’t read much you’d want to tell others about. I guess you have to start reading more interesting books or deny the request. What do you do about those friends of yours who post photos of themselves building a hut or doing some altruistic work for a village in some third world country during their spring break, while you just uploaded a photo of you with your friends at the pool in Florida? It can ruin a perfectly indulgent holiday or get you looking into more productive ways to use your vacation days. How about friends asking you to help free Aung San Suu Kyi? Well, it helps if you know who she is, and I’m sure we’ve all done a bit of extra research to make sure we know exactly what our friends are talking about.

So you could argue this dynamic is making us all a bit more serious and killing some of our mindless fun. However, one happy (albeit tangential) result of this new social dynamic is that there seems to be a direct correlation between the rise in social networks and the decline in porn site traffic. Reuters reported in 2008 that surfing porn had dropped to about ten percent of searches from twenty percent a decade ago, with the most popular searches now for social networking sites. While porn has always been a private affair, it is not a cyber status generating activity like social media can be.

Another recent shift is that the general rule for a video to go viral was that it had to be shocking, scandalous, or ridiculously funny. Now it’s just as common for a video like will.i.am’s “yes we can” to go viral, as it is for a Paris Hilton sex tape. Perhaps we can thank this new social consciousness for the wider, more thoughtful array of video content streaming our way.

So while it’s true the magnitude of shame and stigma possible in cyberspace is scary and can be debilitating, it can also be rehabilitating on a personal and societal level. Lives lived in the open for others to see will hopefully help us see ourselves in a way that demands our own attention and reflection. And, ultimately, will motivate us to live more admirably for all our friends to see.