How Social Media and the Internet Made Us Invincible to Shame

Matthew Rosario
May 15, 2019 · 6 min read

No one is ashamed anymore. Go ahead and try browsing the Internet headlines and social media feeds. I dare you. Controversy abound. There’s never a shortage of high profile politicians embroiled in scandal, actors on trial for financial fraud, or that controversial Facebook/Twitter friend who’s always fending off the backlash of passionate commentators.

In each of these scenarios, those in the hot seat are vehemently denying they’ve done anything wrong , and in fact, insist on quite the opposite. Refusing to cower to the pressure of an angry mob out for blood , shame is often replaced by radical indignation and a hard mantle of confidence that says “screw you,” because well, the Internet.

It doesn’t matter that their facts are wrong, that their language is offensive and ineffective, or that their theories are completely debunked by the facts — they’re not going to be shamed, period.

This pattern of communication represents a common trend across social media platforms. And it’s something the co-founder of Facebook, Chris Hughes, touched on during a recent interview with CNN when he concluded that social media doesn’t just show us the volatile ways we’ve always communicated, but rather, it has fundamentally changed and contributed to new patterns.

Part of this shift seems to be an increasing immunity to shame. When our personal integrity is challenged, we’re not ones for feeling bad about ourselves. We’re much more willing to abandon the grounding effects of self-reflection, diplomatic discourse, or empirical facts, in exchange for brazen denial. So what exactly is shame, and how have we become so immune to it?

What is shame?

Think back to a time when you felt shame. Maybe you said the wrong thing, acted on impulse, or had a momentary lapse in judgement that caused you to behave in a way you’d later regret — it’s a pretty horrible feeling.

But shame is also a very complex event. First, shame differs from guilt in its focus on the self verses behavior; guilt is regret about what you’ve done, while shame is regret about the person you are — the latter being much more difficult to remedy.

And second, when our behavior violates personal and cultural values we deem important to our core identity, we experience shame as an emotional sense of failure and vulnerability. This intense vulnerability is a unique element of shame, in that, our personal failures are made exponentially worse by the fear of being exposed, where others might become aware of our shortcomings and subject us to judgement.

But as one study suggests, shame may largely depend on who’s looking and other social factors like reputation. We might be more prone to shame when our failings are witnessed by those who have power over our social standing and mobility. In other words, if the onlookers aren’t considered members of our tribe and have no influence over our social status, we’re less likely to fear their judgement.

Think about it. You might not care if your 80-year-old grandmother called you out for wearing the same shirt two days in a row, but you’d likely feel differently if an attractive coworker said as much.

But in the age of all things Internet, where we exercise greater control over our self image, our experience of shame is much more negotiable, and nature of social media makes it easier than ever to avoid feeling bad about yourself. Here’s why.

Faster information means shorter attention spans.

Shame is a lot like the effects of second-hand smoke — the thicker the smoke and longer your exposure, the higher your risk of internal damage. Messages about our personal failings give rise to shame when they are potent, and greater exposure causes us to internalize them as being true reflections of our self-worth. Similarly, our fear of others finding us out becomes more intense; the longer our shortcomings remain on display, the more likely others are to notice and subject us to judgement.

But social media and the Internet have changed the math on shame. Information beaming at the speed of light means yesterday’s news feels like ancient history. And today’s bad decision? Easily forgotten and replaced by another feel-good distraction.

With attention spans having shrunken to the duration of a finger-flicking scroll, everyone is forever moving on to the next thing, and that means any message about our failings is short-lived and lacks potency. Now, avoiding shame is simply a matter of running out the clock. All one has to do is wait it out.

So much information means more filtering.

From blog feeds, to podcasts and hashtags, the information overload in the Internet age is real. With more options than anyone could ever consume, there’s greater pressure to be more selective about the source and content of the information we receive. Mainstream media consumption is no longer a given — it’s a choice. We can plug into any number of home-brewed internet streams that specialize in a siloed realm of interests, entertainment, and information that only matter to us.

If the speed of information ensures that onlookers forget about what they know, a high volume of information ensures that what people know is limited by their personal filters.

With only so much time to watch and listen, people are less likely to care about information that doesn’t interest them, and therefore, less likely to hear of — let alone care about — your personal failings.

Everyone’s in Trouble. All the time.

Social media and the Internet at large have made shaming others something of a sport. It’s become part of our online culture that persons be dragged to the proverbial town square for a good public flogging.

And while it may be the case that such represents the natural evolution of good old-fashioned social justice, the Internet era has taken this to the extreme.

Whether it’s grammar nazis in the Facebook comments looking to throw shade on your elementary school education, or an uploaded video featuring the eclectic wardrobe choices of Walmart shoppers, in the age of pocket computers and cameras, no one gets away with anything .

But it’s precisely this awesome power and scope of online shaming that has produced an equally absurd counter-force: unabashed denial.

Remember the laws of Newton: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The frequency and scale of how we use social media and the Internet to shame one another has resulted in a loss of potency in the message, which in turn, makes it easier to ignore. Haters gonna hate, right?

Everyone is their own PR manager.

The study I cited earlier in this article identifies the social function of shame as an incentive to control information that may damage one’s reputation. Simply put: our fear of shame may motivate us to control information that affects our social status; we freely spread information that preserves our image, and move to block information that may hurt it.

One of the defining features of social media is that it allows everyone to be their own PR manager. Posts on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook are like press releases for anyone looking to control their image. Only the information we want people to know gets through.

No one posts about their missteps and failings. They’re posting their very best selfies, gatherings, and vacation spots.

Making your life look amazing is the essential common denominator for even having an Instagram. And it’s this power which allows us to shrug off the threat of shame, because being in control of our own message means being able to counter any negative information that might threaten our self-image.

Everyone is now free to choose their tribe at will.

Perhaps the most profound impact of social media and the Internet is that they encourage us to isolate ideologically. When in self-doubt, we can now run to the safety of our respective corners of thought and distraction. And there, insulated from all that differs from our worldview, we never have to endure a dissenting opinion or critique. And even when it happens, we can just call upon our Internet tribe to troll and drown it out.

And so, as it relates to shame and the significance of who’s looking, in the Internet age of social media dynasties, we have greater control over both what messages go out and who receives them.

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Matthew Rosario

Written by

Writer, Musician, and Mental Health Clinician

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +611K people. Follow to join our community.

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