The shameful shaming of Twitter’s digital mobs

According to Andy Warhol, everyone will get to enjoy 15 minutes of fame. On Twitter, everyone gets 15 seconds to ride a viral wave. It’s that promise of attention and approval that provokes so many to pounce the moment they see an easy target for humor, mockery, and abuse. It’s standard-issue one-upsmanship raised to the millionth power. If you run in left-wing circles, you’ll jump on something that offends the left. The same holds for the right, and for dozens of other political-ideological-cultural factions. It’s the world’s largest high school cafeteria, with every member of every clique vying to become the most popular kid in the group.

None of the great critics of democracy, from Plato to the authors of the Federalist Papers, would be surprised. All of them considered democracy to be indistinguishable from mob rule. That’s why all of them insisted that democracy needed to be combined with nondemocratic norms and procedures. These institutions would temper and channel the unstable, irrational, destructive passions of the mob, forcing its members to play by rules designed to foster reason and deliberation. The nondemocratic elements of the American Constitution (some of them, like indirect election of the Senate, dismantled since the founding era) attempt to do precisely that — with decidedly mixed results.

But how to temper the digital mob? It sounds like a contradiction in terms. Twitter simply is a mob — though only sometimes a malignant one. Take away the free-wheeling, bottom-up, spontaneous interactions, and you’d be left with — what? A series of monitored listservs with a strictly enforced length limit? That’s hardly appealing. But neither is technologically facilitated bullying, humiliation, shaming, shunning, and ostracism. Most of us can probably agree on that. Even if we find ourselves at a loss about how to make it stop.

Via The Week