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This article was published on November 16, 2017

The furore around Zoella’s teenage tweets proves how low we’ve set the bar for public shaming

The furore around Zoella’s teenage tweets proves how low we’ve set the bar for public shaming
Matthew Hughes
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Matthew Hughes

Former TNW Reporter

Matthew Hughes is a journalist from Liverpool, England. His interests include security, startups, food, and storytelling. Follow him on Twi Matthew Hughes is a journalist from Liverpool, England. His interests include security, startups, food, and storytelling. Follow him on Twitter.

Where did the dragons go? I remember when the Internet was a sword used to bring the most heinous people to justice. Those who quite rightly deserved their comeuppance. Y’know. Dragons. The Martin Shkreli’s of the world. People for whom there was no doubt that they were indeed bastards, and therefore fair game.

I’m all for punching up. In fact, I think as a society we’re obligated to punch up. But the recent public shaming of harmless YouTube beauty icon Zoella sits uneasy with me.

Missed the drama? You’re probably either over 23, or you don’t read Buzzfeed, but I’ll sum it up for you. Circa 2009, Zoella made some (largely, some were a bit iffy) vanilla, snarky tweets. I’m not going to call them ill-advised, because it’s largely boring teenage banter. Comments about greasy hair, skanks, tramps, and fatties. The type of things that idiot teenagers say. And yes — we were all idiot, mean, cruel teenagers once. You especially.

Anyway, someone (who has since made her account private) dug them up and shared them in a tweet captioned: “I find it so funny how zoella has managed to rebrand herself as some kind of sweet, unproblematic saint,” not for a minute considering that it’s ridiculously weird that they’d pore over someone’s Twitter feed in a desperate search for some teenage indiscretions.

The tweet shaming Zoella went more viral than smallpox. At the time of writing it had been liked by over 12,000 people and retweeted by over 4,000 people. The media covered it too, and earlier today Zoella issued a groveling apology to her nearly 12 million followers. Predictably, she also deleted the highlighted tweets.

I mean, many of the “problematic” (god, I hate that word) tweets date back as early as 2009. According to Wikipedia, Zoella is 27. Not only was Zoella a teenager back then (and therefore deserving of some leeway), the tweets were posted long before she became a public figure, with book deals and arse-clenchingly expensive advent calendars. Long before she lived under the expectation of ever-present scrutiny.

I’m deeply troubled by the fact that there’s no statute of limitations on the Internet. Twitter is almost like a courtroom, where everything you’ve ever done or said can be used against you. But it’s worse, because there’s no jury or defence. There are no rules on what’s considered admissible evidence. It’s the equivalent of the North Korean legal system, but 280 characters at a time. It’s a cliche at this point, but it’s troubling that we’re now criminalizing (for lack of a better word) normal teenage behavior.

It’s a fact of life that teenagers do and say profoundly idiotic things, and as a consequence of the exhibitionist nature of youth culture, many of those things end up splashed across the Internet, preserved for all eternity, or at least until Twitter eventually runs out of VC money. Why are we, as a society, unable to overlook that?

It’s also worth pointing out that Twitter in 2009 was a very different site. It was a chaotic, personal place, where people were less reserved. Some people quite literally posted up-to-the minute life updates, and it wasn’t uncommon to simply vent whatever was on your mind at the moment, without any concern about how it may be perceived almost a decade later. It’s not an excuse, no, but it’s a reasonable explanation.

I’m also puzzled as why anyone actually gives a shit. With tens of millions of followers, Zoella is undeniably a massively successful vlogger, yes, but she’s also unspeakably boring (although, I acknowledge that as a paunchy, male nerd, I’m not really in her target demographic). Her videos largely consist of her reviewing beauty products and talking about shopping sprees at Primark. It’s all very saccharine and wholesome.

I find it really strange that we’re here. I find it deeply worrying that both Buzzfeed and the BBC reported on a single tweet from someone who evidently has an axe to grind, without pointing out that it’s deeply fucking weird that someone would go to the effort of unearthing near-decade old tweets in the first place. Is this what we think is important important now?

I’m astonished they didn’t ask the single question that all journalists should ask before hitting ‘publish’ on the CMS: “is this in the public interest?”

In Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, the author talks about a golden age when online shaming was used against those who deserved it. If a Daily Mail reporter wrote a column that was homophobic, we could get them, and in turn exact some kind of justice. But public shaming is a powerful and intoxiating narcotic, and eventually you’ll sink to ever-lower depths in order to get your fix. In this case, Twitter has turned us into the equivalent of tabloid journalists rooting through someone’s rubbish with the hope of finding something juicy.

This is bad for those who end up shamed, obviously. But it’s also bad for society, because it’s distracting us away from the real dragons. And Zoella ain’t no dragon.

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