In the pre-Internet age, the dumped boyfriend may have expressed his anger by throwing darts at her photo. These days, however, the outlets for vindictiveness have multiplied almost to infinity--and your reputation is more fragile than ever.
All of us now live under the threat of easy and instant humiliation. It's no longer just celebrities and business executives who need to think about aggressive reputation-protection and face-saving techniques.
Not long ago, people who routinely plugged their own names into online search engines were thought to be engaging in "vanity Googling." These days, it is an act of self-preservation. "Google yourself at least once a week," advises Richard Levick, who heads a strategic communications firm in Washington, D.C. "You need to track what's being said about you" on blogs, message boards and social-networking websites.
Any time you leave your house, you could be targeted. Drive over to Wal-Mart for a gallon of milk and you may end up on PeopleofWalmart.com. The site--not, needless to say, affiliated with the retailer--runs smirk-inducing photos of overweight or oddly dressed shoppers, most of them sent in by other shoppers.
Such sites raise the question: Have we become a more malicious society? There are differing views.
"Human nature hasn't changed," says Jonathan Bernstein, a crisis consultant in Los Angeles. "There have always been people whose aim in life was to cause pain to others. If they saw people embarrassing themselves, they got pleasure in sharing that information. Before the Internet, they had to gossip with their neighbors. Now they can gossip with the world."
Others argue that there has been a ratcheting up of meanness--that the changes in technology have made us nastier and more cynical. "It's like a blood sport," says Mr. Fink, who runs a crisis-management firm in Los Angeles. "It feels like everyone has their cellphone out, ready to take a photo that will hurt someone else."
It's as if all of us now have our own printing presses and our own television studios, and we can use them for good or for evil. The problem is that too many of us succumb to the anonymity of the Web, says Parry Aftab, a cyber-security attorney based in Irvington, N.Y. "We're braver when we type. We don't have to look someone in their eyes. It's easier to be vicious, to cross the line between funny and cruel."
The epidemic of online belittling is also fueled by reality television, which has helped create "a culture of humiliation," argues Nicolaus Mills, a professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. When untalented singers are ridiculed in the early rounds of 'American Idol,' when contestants are dismissed on "The Apprentice," when B-list actors reveal their addictions on "Celebrity Rehab," viewers get to feel superior.
Even in sports, there is a rising specter of humiliation. In boxing, once your opponent is down on the mat, the fighting stops. But the rage now is Ultimate Fighting, which is all about beating an opponent into submission. Fighters can hit opponents when they're on the ground in defenseless positions. YouTube is filled with videos of these gruesome matches.
Meanwhile, it can be sobering and instructive to watch the speed with which high-profile people are publicly humiliated these days. Consider Whitney Houston. Last month, concertgoers overseas captured her poor performances on their cellphone video cameras. Within hours, clips of her mangling "I Will Always Love You" were all over the Internet, derailing her latest comeback attempt.
When it comes to spreading ridicule, the Web is now a hodgepodge of celebrity takedowns and videos of ugly brides or of kids who can't sing in the school play. Young people these days are especially vulnerable to such attacks, since so much of their lives are lived online.
The word "humiliation' is rooted in the Latin word humus, which means 'dirt.' Too much of our online world is now devoted to dirt, to the enterprise of immediately spreading embarrassing moments, or of exaggerating people's foibles," says Dr. Mills, the American studies professor.
He believes things can improve if more of us make a simple pledge, telling ourselves: "We're better than that."
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