On Web 2.0 And the Rise of Sociopathic Media

Social Media!  Social Media!  We’re building bridges through Social Media!

Except when we aren’t.  Except those times when it’s two-way dialogue becomes a brutal dog-fighting pit of character assaults by anonymous assailants in a digital lynch mob.  Don’t get me wrong–I love Web 2.0, even if I am still trying to find a way to make a fair margin on these new platforms.  But the ugly underbelly of Social Media is how it allows us to spread and share our basest ugliest selves.  Love may be the most powerful force on earth, but hate is a lot easier to summon.

The Mob's Digital Now, Atticus Finch

Decades ago, I met an AE at my first agency.  She was nice, funny, and ended up marrying another really fun AE and moving to Boston.  Occasionally I’d hear about them through old colleagues but as these things go, I didn’t really keep in touch.

Until the other day when her name leapt out at me off a gossipy ad business website.  She’s now a client and in a bit of regretably bad judgement, she did something pretty stupid.  And this blog called her out on it.  Within twenty-four hours, the post had been repeatedly forwarded through Twitter and nearly one hundred people had posted comments.  Their tone was uniformly vitriolic.  Under such charming aliases as “PhuhQ” and “Client Hater,” they piled on the invective, unshackled by civility or decency by the cloak of anonymity.

I’ve had anonymous posters call me out by name and take cheapshots and it stings.  But having hundreds, even thousands of people in your business alerted to your big mistake and then pile on with assessments of everything from your intellect to your sexual activity is a harrowing experience.  Are these people in your office?  On your bus?  And how did they get your email and home phone number?  It well may blow over in a week, but when it strikes, it’s a short trip from the center of this maelstrom to outright paranoia.

Look, I’ve laughed at other’s misfortune, repeatedly.  I mocked the contestant from South Carolina’s ridiculous answer in the 2007 Miss Teen USA pageant.  I listened to Alec Baldwin rail at his daughter and Christian Bale rant at his DP.  And I followed every salacious detail in the implosion of the Tiger Woods machine.

More to the point, I’ve done plenty of boneheaded things in my life and career; I’ve made indefensible mistakes and watched as well-intended actions turned horribly, desperately wrong.  Happily, those events happened in relative privacy.  I could find someone and apologize or try to explain myself to a small group and move on.  But now the web connects offended parties far and wide, most of whom are uninterested in hearing another side because it clutters up the story we like, the version that allowed us to justify some indignance.  Between the proliferation of cell phone cameras, voicemail, email hacking and even widely disseminated 911 calls, we must all accept that we now live very public lives: perhaps not at the level of Nancy Pelosi or Conan O’Brien, but far more than we typically assume.

So today, I’m giving thanks for every opportunity I’ve ever been given to err anonymously.  Whoa…

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79


a person, as a psychopathic personality, whose behavior is antisocial and who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience.