Clark “Danger” Bianco discusses thought crime and public shaming in the Internet Age:
Shaming works well (to the ends that it works, at least) in small bands of hunter gatherers. It causes people to adjust their actions to social norms, it leaves no physical scars, it doesn’t incarcerate anyone or destroy the value of their labor…and it’s got a built-in time horizon. A guy reaches for the last slice of pizza, one of his friends says “Hey, don’t be a pig; you’ve already had your share”. The guy’s face flushes because he was called out. He pulls back his hand and lets someone else eat the last slice. Perhaps over the next few days his friends make pig-snorting noises at him to remind him that he was greedy, and he’s annoyed, ashamed…and chastised. He takes extra pains to eat his share or less at future shared meals over the next week or two. The shaming joke never spread beyond 148 or so people, and within a few weeks the entire incident is forgotten.
Social mechanisms evolved in small groups without any form of information persistence other than fallible human memory. I constantly find it amazing that they work at all in our much changed world and society (I also find it amazing that primate minds that evolved to hunt small game on the savanna can do differential equations and put probes into orbit around distant planets).
I’d suggest that shaming people in very large, very modern social settings is a superstimulus. In the ancestral small-tribe environment it feels good to be the dealer of a joke and not the brunt. It feels good to be the social arbiter and not the social pariah. It feels good to be the cool kid and not the nerd. …and, in the iterated version of the game, where a given person is on the shaming end every now and then and on the shamed end every now and then, everything works out.
We’ve got the social process wired into our heads, and it works well when we’re in small groups, but it can be destructive when we’re in larger groups. Calling out the hunter in a pack of 150 who took more than his fare share of meat is one thing. Calling out the miller who took more than his fare share of flour in a village of 1,000 is another.
…and calling out the Jewish moneylenders as taking “more than their fair share” in interest in a modern nation of 50 million, in an age of newspapers, radio, and movies (or calling out the Tutsi merchants as taking “more than their fair share” of the economy) is another.
When we combine modern communications technologies with large crowds (far in excess of Dunbar’s number) and then add in persistence and searchability, the social environment of 2013 is radically different from that of even 1990.