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The Shame Economy

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

Okay, so it’s been a bit longer than “a few weeks”, but I did promise back in June in my “How One Joke Can Ruin Your Life” post that I’d elaborate a bit on what I call “The Shame Economy”. My thoughts on that got sidetracked after some time, but I think with some current social media developments it is finally time to bring it back. So let’s dive in.

Let’s say we have a game where the main payoff is fame, or otherwise “internet clout”. Let’s assume there’s also some other payoff labeled “drama”. These serve as consumption and production approximately, where a user produces drama to consume fame.

As these users produce drama, they realize they can more optimally get fame by producing its opposite, “shame”. Creating shame in effect creates negative fame for another user or group of users. And so, the game follows: producing shame for A creates drama, which then produces fame for B.

When we apply this to the real world, the effects are a little bit more subtle. We much more often remember what is being shamed over who started it. But that’s not necessarily the point here; in fact, I would go so far as to say that it doesn’t matter who started it at all. What matters is that someone can take credit for a shaming movement, or perhaps a popular tweet or post amongst the drama, and thus intake some sort of fame out of it.

Now, not all shaming events are inherently done by users intending to follow this game path. Movements like MeToo or Gamergate started off with good intentions; however, as the movements become larger there becomes more attempts to fill the mantle with shaming attempts as a way of getting some sort of utility out of the whole thing. And for the consumers, drama in some way excites the whole and increases demand.

I find the Shame Economy and Outrage Culture as a whole fascinating, primarily because it’s so hard to pinpoint a solid anthropological reason as to why this is how it is. What drives us to create fame for ourselves and shame for others? What drives us to worship drama? Does it have to do with the fact that networks of gossip are what created the large nomadic hunting bands in the beginning years of humankind? Who really knows. I think my theory on the Shame Economy is rudimentary at best but I in this case both despise and am completely fascinated by it (much the same as I feel about incel culture). I’ll try to develop it more as time goes along, and post some sort of update on this thread of posts when I do.

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