The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

The Web as Public Pillory

We’ve all had moments we’d rather not have become public knowledge. We’ve all done things we’d rather our friends and family — let alone the whole world — never know about. And there was a time when — except, say, for celebrities like Britney Spears — most of us never had to worry about the humiliation of our worst moments or embarrassing acts publicized That was, of course, before the web. Maybe it was before the age of the video camera. No, maybe it was before the advent of audio recording. Wait. Make that before the dawn of human speech. Well, maybe even before that.

My point is that public exposure of our human foibles is nothing new, and certainly wasn’t created by the web, but this tale of a lost cellphone is just the latest in a series of stories that illustrate how the web, combined with the popularity of blogging, the ubiquitous nature of videophones, and sites like YouTube., have brought about a rebirth of the pillory or the public stockade.

Three weeks ago, Mr. Guttman went on a quest to retrieve a friend’s lost cellphone, a quest that has now ended with the arrest of a 16-year-old on charges of possessing the missing gadget, a Sidekick model with a built-in camera that sells for as much as $350. But before the teenager was arrested, she was humiliated by Mr. Guttman in front of untold thousands of people on the Web, an updated version of the elaborate public shamings common in centuries past.

The tale began when Mr. Guttman’s best friend Ivanna left her cellphone in a taxicab, like thousands of others before her. After Ivanna got a new Sidekick, she logged on to her account — and was confronted by pictures of an unfamiliar young woman and her family, along with the young woman’s America Online screen name.

The 16-year-old, Sasha Gomez, of Corona, Queens, had been using the Sidekick to take pictures and send instant messages. She apparently did not know that the company that provided the phone’s service, T-Mobile, automatically backs up such information on its remote servers. So when Ivanna got back on, there was Sasha.

Using instant messages, Mr. Guttman tracked down Sasha and asked her to return it. “Basically, she told me to get lost,” Mr. Guttman recalled. “That was it.”

And in a different time, that might have been it. Outside of a phone call to the police, and another to T-Mobile, no one would have heard of the incident that eventually involved thousands of strangers, the teenager’s family, and eventually ended in her arrest. But the the web page went up, along with pictures of Sasha and her family for anyone nursing a grudge about a lost or stolen cellphone to commiserate. And then some.

I was immediately reminded of the now infamous “Bus Uncle” video that circulated the web after a Hong Kong bus commuter captured a confrontation over a loud cellphone conversation and posted it online. Before that there was the even more infamous “Dog Poop Girl,” so dubbed and made famous by South Korean bloggers after her dog relieved itself on the subway and her refusal to clean it up led to a confrontation with fellow commuters. (A sidekick lost in a taxi cab, a loud cellphone chat on the bus, and an incontinent pooch on a subway. Does travel or commuting figure into this phenomenon somehow?)

It’s easy to point and laugh at the “stars” of these now-public dramas, and to nod with judgmental approval at the consequences they’ve faced due to exposure: loss of privacy, loss of jobs, threats, arrest, etc. But from my own perspective, I can think of some moments I’m glad nobody whipped out a videophone or camera phone; moments when I morphed into an irate customer or exasperated parent, for example. The story could spread around the world, probably without my side being told or my even knowing about it until the consequences of exposure started rolling in.

So, looking at it from the other side, there’s legitimacy to concerns that the “smart mob” of online community may sometimes morph into a mob of the more old fashioned short.

The Dog Poop Girl case “involves a norm that most people would seemingly agree to — clean up after your dog,” wrote Daniel J. Solove, a George Washington University law professor who specializes in privacy issues, on one blog. “But having a permanent record of one’s norm violations is upping the sanction to a whole new level . . . allowing bloggers to act as a cyber-posse, tracking down norm violators and branding them with digital scarlet letters.”

Howard Rheingold, who studies and writes about the impact of technology on the behavior of groups, said the debate should begin with an understanding that the rules of privacy have changed.

“The shadow side of the empowerment that comes with a billion and a half people being online is the surveillance aspect,” he said. “We used to worry about big brother — the state — but now of course it’s our neighbors, or people on the subway.”

With society awash in personal data that is bought and sold daily, those who would use it as a weapon have few barriers.

And we’re more awash in personal information than perhaps most of us know. AT&T, for example, just changed its privacy policy to basically make it clear to its customers that AT&T owns their data, and can do with it as it pleases. John Aravosis, of Americablog,the blogger who exposed ex-White House reporter Jeff Gannon, reported how easy it is to buy just about anyone’s phone records, and then went out and bought Wesley Clark’s records just to prove it. (As a side note, it’s pretty easy to track your location too, if you carry a cellphone. Here’s how. Here’s where. Or here. Or here.)

More recently, conservative blogger Michelle Malkin posted the phone number of an anti-war student group, resulting in the group receiving death threats against its members. The blowback was that another blogger posted Malkin’s home address and phone number.

So, in a way, AT&T is right. Your data and personal information isn’t your own. It’s everybody’s. And if that’s the case, and stories like that above are any indication, then the web as public pillory is here to stay. The stockade is back in the public square, the public square is the world, and it looks like everyone is eligible for a turn in the stocks.

Andy Warhol is supposed to have said that in the future we’ll all be famous for 15 minutes. He probably had no idea how right he was, or just what kind of fame — unsought and unwelcome — we might all be in line for.

Update: And then there’s the Comcast technician who fell asleep on a customer’s couch.


  1. So…the mom bought a phone she almost certainly knew was stolen ($50 on a subway platform–hmmm), then gave it to her daughter, who refused to give it back even after she heard from the owner. And then her brother threatened the guy who put up the Website. And then they want the victim to pay the $50 they paid for the phone??? Gee–I am really having a hard time feeling sorry for this family.

    While I understand your concern, Sasha and her family supported crime by buying the phone in the first place. As someone who has had her wallet stolen twice, and who lives with the knowledge that her SSN (which was on my ID) is effectively forever out of her possession, I have NO sympathy for them. I would laugh with glee if I saw worse happen to the [chuckleheads] who ripped me off. Does that make me judgemental? Sure. Sasha and her family could have avoided the whole circus if, like decent people, they’d given back the phone in the beginning.

  2. Unfortunately, it seems that with some people, shaming them is the ONLY way to get them to do the right thing (or even to behave decently)!

  3. I guess I should have added that in this post I’m in no way condoning stealing, buying stolen merchandise, inconsiderate cellphone usage, or failure to scoop your pup’s poop. 😉

  4. People’s abilities to out right stealsomething and and then pretend is OK has always amazed me. (and its getting worse) Maybe its because I’m old and was brought up in a different time? Who knows. But for the life of me I can’t imagine buying what I know is stolen, or then refusing to returning it to the rightfull owner.

    I once found a wallet with $1,300 in it. I spent 3 days tracking down the owner and when I handed it to him he slipped into his back pocket and said Thanks, all without ever opening the wallet. I asked, aren’t you going to open it? He said anyone that would spend that much time and effort to return the wallet isn’t the kind of person that would steal money out of it. Come’on let me buy you a beer…

    He was right.

    I’m glad this girl was arrested, I feel the mother (who bought it) should also have been arrested. Fine them both $500 (10 X the price of the phone) And let them spend 500 hours walking around subway stations picking up trash left behind but other thoughtless patrons.

    And the Army brat should be booted out of the military. Lying and threatening is not a trait we need in our men in uniform.

    (Looks like Momma raised all her children to the same high standards)

  5. You’re right, of course. There was nothing in that situation that couldn’t have been resolved with a few phone calls to the police and the service provider, especially if Ivanna had already reported her phone as lost the day she lost it.

    The problem with the shaming is that there is even less control over it than when it was a small-town thing. You put that information out and you have no idea if someone is going to go too far. One person calling her a theif, OK, multiple people seeking her out to do so on their own volition – gettin’ creepy. There’s no one to direct the mob or step in if it goes too far.

  6. In the story of the girl and the stollen phone, I wasn’t clear, was the mother aware it was stollen when she bought it? When did the girl find out? It sounded like she was aware and the ‘mistake’ she made was using some features that lead to her being discovered. Unfortunatley, I think this is a common perception, “Oh, she shoulda done this or that so she didn’t get busted.” What she should have done, was be honest. I think what they have gotten from the public has been excessive, I mean, none of these people threatening them were affected, so they need to shut up. But, maybe there is a lesson in here the Mother and Daughter can learn, I just hope it isn’t, ‘Next time, we got to be more careful so we don’t get caught.’ Honesty is always the best quality…. I hope that mantra never dies, but I fear it ain’t as healthy as it use to be.