Dying of shame

You’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard about the tragic suicide of a nurse after 2Day FM DJs prank called her about the British Royals.

We as a public have an intuition that we need to be punishing someone for what happened. And as a result there’s a lot of debate about blame and vulnerability going on, but I think a lot of it misses a very important point. At present the focus is on either whether the actions of the DJs were the actual cause of this tragedy, or if the nurse had mental health issues (to coin a diminishing phrase). What is not being discussed is the context in which these events took place.

In the past – five, ten years ago – pranking someone (as bullying as it can sometimes be) had a small ripple effect with respect to the audience. But now the globe is our stage. Do something local and it can quickly become global. Social media and the current appetite for low quality shock news means events like the prank hospital call can become global very quickly. What might have been an embarrassment that might have been ok to handle as a local event now turns into a global mockery. When we think about it, it’s actually not that surprising that such a terrible turn of events occurred – how many of us could really handle the scrutiny of billions of judging strangers and the constant meming and viral spread of a mistake that suddenly calls your mental and professional competency into question.

What we do in public, in our surveillance society, has the potential to spread like wild fire and become uncontrollable in an instant. This is the point that is lost on those that undertake this kind of humor work without considering the consequences of just what can unfold.

Are the DJs to blame? Sure, but not in the ways the public is trying to blame them. Was the nurse simply vulnerable? Yes, but only in the same way we all are vulnerable to a disproportionate public response to a mistake.

What do we do then? We change our behavior about how we publicize others and think about the weight of audience on individuals we highlight.

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