There is a lot of funny stuff out there on the interwebs. Lots of the funny seems totally harmless, like ICanHazCheezburger, for example. How can anybody possibly be offended by funny pictures of cats? No one, I say. There is plenty more G-rated, totally inoffensive humor on the web where that came from. But then, there are sites like People of Walmart. This site dedicates itself to posting pictures of people taken in Walmart. Why is that funny? Well, because on any given day you can see pictures of people who look as if they have never had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of a mirror, or a shower, or any sense of propriety or self-awareness whatsoever. Bad clothes, bad hair, bad attitudes – People of Walmart has it all. The photos are accompanied by scathingly witty captions that have not even the slightest hint of empathy for the subjects. I find this website to be frequently laugh-out-loud funny.
So here’s the question: is it okay for me to be amused by these pictures of folks who probably have no idea they are being posted and laughed about on a website? In spite of how jaw-droppingly awful or absurd some of these people look, they are still human beings. Is this the internet equivalent of pointing and laughing, just with the patina of anonymity to make it seem acceptable? Maybe I’m taking it too seriously, but I do wonder.
Informal social control often takes the form of gossip, shame, or scorn. Within a tight-knit group, if an individual seems to deviate from what is socially acceptable, the other members of the group will let him or her know through their reactions. The reactions may be similar to what happens now when we look at people on the internet, and laugh, or gasp, or ridicule… but those reactions do not reach the intended targets. Gossip, in particular, has likely been around since human social groups first formed, but nowadays the gossip we share about those we see on a regular basis is supplemented by gossip about those we will never meet, e.g. celebrities. Yet the urge to gossip is the same with celebrities as it is with our regular group, because communication has changed to make it seem as if we have actual contact with the people we see on TV, in movies, and in magazines. It’s an ancient and long-adapted mechanism for helping people behave in ways that are the least disruptive to the group.
So how does this all translate to me anonymously laughing at pictures of people on the internet? I have decided to conclude that my electronically-anonymized reaction is okay, because if I saw these people in real life, I would still laugh.