What it gives can, at times, be an instant sense of justice.
A few days ago, the world was shown a smartphone video of a manager at a Salt Lake fast food restaurant angrily telling a worker she had been fired. The son of the worker, an Hispanic woman with limited English skills, said he was trying to help his mother ask for a promised raise — one she was too shy to ask for herself.
Soon after, CoreLife restaurant officials held a press conference to say the manager had been fired. This came after talking with witnesses about the incident, they said.
Instant justice can be satisfying. Managers should not treat employees that way. Still, we can’t escape the reality that we don’t know what happened right before the smartphone camera was turned on.
What the internet takes, on the other hand, is a sense of shared human imperfection, replacing it with instant judgment and a desire to lecture rather than lift. People are quickly rendered bad or good.
Take the case of Craig Brooks, a Holiday Inn Express worker in Austin, Texas. He turned on his phone to record himself calmly telling a customer he couldn’t give her a room because he, an African American, overheard her describing him using a racial slur. According to Buzzfeed, the woman reportedly used the slur while on the phone with him trying to make a reservation, after he told her to call the hotel’s automated reservation service.
He spoke with upper management after the phone call and was told to deny the woman service.
At first, the internet applauded the calm and dignified way he handled the situation after the woman entered the hotel to confront him. But then, someone dug into his Twitter account and found he had tweeted offensive, stereotypical comments about transgender people.
The tide turned quickly. Eventually, he issued an apology, promising to change his behavior. But did he really experience a change of heart or just do what he felt the internet expected him to do?
David Brooks of the New York Times wrote recently that “the nation’s culture is now enmeshed in a new technology that we don’t yet know how to control.” In this culture, he said, “stereotype is more salient than persons,” and “a single moment is more important than a life story.”
Sometimes, that single moment really is worthy of public condemnation and severe consequences. Without the internet, social media and ubiquitous video cameras, abusive and demeaning restaurant managers wouldn’t be called to account. Without the internet, the officer who arrested University of Utah nurse Alex Wubbels two years ago probably would have gone unpunished, lost in a he-said, she-said stalemate judged by people who didn’t actually see what happened.
But without the internet and all those cameras, American culture also wouldn’t be littered with the fractured lives of people who were dragged into the spotlight and battered against their will — people like “Alex from Target,” a young man who became a national sensation five years ago when a girl secretly snapped a picture of him working at the store and made it go viral.
Without the internet, a young student at Woods Cross High School wouldn’t have found herself in an abusive nationwide twitter storm last year because she wore a Chinese dress to her prom.
People may walk more gingerly when they are aware that some camera, somewhere, is most likely recording their every move, and yet a culture loses something precious when the single moments lead to final judgments.
In the end, it isn’t the internet that gives and takes away; it’s us. The internet just makes our propensity for snap judgments louder and more powerful.
When it strikes at legitimate injustices, it is marvelously efficient and satisfying. But its aim is unsteady, its mechanism often is half cocked and everyone, it seems, is loaded and ready.