When Digital Shaming Goes too Far: Lessons From the Seattle Tip Stiffer
When I was 18, I got drunk at a party and ended up in a minor argument with a female friend of a friend. I don’t remember what started the bickering—Marx? Beer pong? What do college freshmen fight about?—but I do remember what ended it. I turned to the girl, who was midsentence, and snarled, "Why don’t you just go away and kill yourself?" My words weren’t witty or clever, but they weren’t meant to be. They were meant to be mean and vicious, and ultimately they produced my desired effect: The girl ran away in tears, leaving me and my friends alone to laugh about it.
A decade later, I’m still really embarrassed about what I said that night. The girl I’d hurt and humiliated forgave me a few weeks later, but to this day, when I see her or think about her I feel a little internal wince, as if my conscience is still flogging me. Blessedly, however, the mistake I made at that party occurred 10 years ago, meaning I was able to avoid the most terrifying critic yet devised by man: the internet. This week, Andrew Meyer wasn’t so lucky.
You may have heard about Andrew Meyer earlier this week from The Stranger, Jezebel, or Facebook. Meyer’s name was tweeted thousands of times on Monday and Tuesday, often with links leading to articles about him. Jezebel’s story on Meyer got almost 100,000 views, while one of the hundreds of people who weighed in on him on Twitter dubbed him the grand “tool of the week.” For those who haven’t heard about Meyer, his instant fame can be explained thusly: On Friday night, Meyer and a female friend went into Seattle’s Bimbo’s Cantina for food and drinks. Their server that evening was Victoria Liss. According to Liss, after the couple had behaved like jerks—mocking the food, dipping their hands into the tip jar—Meyer paid without leaving Liss any gratuity. He then took his rudeness a step further, by writing at the bottom of his bill, "P.S. You could stand to loose [sic] a few pounds."
Understandably hurt, Liss did what anyone would do in this day and age: She took her anger to her computer. She posted a photo of Meyer’s receipt onto her Facebook page and wrote underneath it, "[T]he best part is he was dressed like that gay kid on Glee. Yuppie scum!" From there, it was off to the blog races.
Jezebel filed its post on Meyer under "Assholes." Dan Savage, one of the most widely read alt-weekly columnists in America, also jumped on him, writing, “[Y]ou probably weren't the only person to stiff a bartender in Seattle this weekend. But you were the only person dumb/hateful/angry enough to write this on your credit card slip.” Crushable picked up the Meyer story and published his full name, where he works, the name of his college, what fraternity he was in, and his full signature, all under the title, "Seattle Area Douchebag Gains Internet Notoriety For Stiffing And Insulting His Server." The article even included a passage of search terms at the end to up the likelihood it would come up if someone—employers, dates, friends—Googles Meyer’s name.
Like with the lynch mobs of old, things move fast in the age of internet justice. Within about 72 hours from the moment Liss got stiffed, hundreds of people, united and galvanized by blogs, jumped into action and attempted to ruin a stranger’s reputation because he said something mean to another stranger. There was just one problem: They got the wrong guy.
On Monday evening, after defaming Andrew Meyer, claiming he worked at Microsoft, directing the world to his Facebook account, and bragging that she’d found Meyer’s phone number, Liss returned to her Facebook page to apologize—she’d found the wrong Andrew Meyer. "I need glasses, I put up the picture of the wrong guy," she wrote. "I’m a douche for that. SO SORRY. Blinded by rage."
The outlets that picked up the Meyer story and ran with it apologized too, at least as much as they could. Crushable, which published a picture of Meyer, has since removed the photo and links to Meyer’s Facebook page. "We’re sorry, man," the article now says, "hope you didn’t get too much hate mail from this mistake!" Savage also updated his post. He wasn’t contrite, but he was about as sheepish as he gets: "Andrew doesn't work at Microsoft, says people who work at Microsoft. Also, some are saying I shouldn't have posted this. But it was freaking everywhere already—all over Facebook, all over Jezebel—and it was a thing that happened, a thing that people were talking about, and my ignoring it or keeping it off Slog wouldn't have made a thing that didn't happen and that people weren't talking about."
The explanation usually given for stories like the "Tip Heard Round the Internet" tends to be along the lines of what Savage gets at: They’re newsworthy, and everyone else was already reporting on them. Savage didn’t respond to requests for comment, but I asked Anna North, the Jezebel editor who posted that site’s original Meyer piece, how she made the decision to move forward with it.
"With a story like this, I definitely think about how bad the person's behavior is, as well as how unusual it is," she wrote in an email. "Obviously I'm not going to write up every dickish comment someone makes on Facebook, but the fat-shaming ‘tip’ really stood out as a new and different form of dickishness. And with the advent of widespread social media use, the reality is that something you scrawl on a receipt can become news."
And what if Meyer isn’t the guilty party? What if, for instance, his date is the one who wrote the nasty note?
"We reported what Victoria Liss said in her Facebook post and cited her as our source," wrote North. "If it turns out that his date did write it, or that there's some other explanation for the whole thing, we'd report on that too."
As of this writing, Jezebel has yet to amend its post to say that Liss fingered the wrong Andrew Meyer. But even if Liss had had the right guy, would that have warranted the kind of mob justice people on the internet are obviously champing at the bit to mete out? Other than fulfilling a desire for revenge, what purpose does siccing bloggers and Twitter users on low-level meanies serve?
Saying a horrible thing to a girl at a party one night when I was a teenager is not the only bad thing I’ve done in my life. Like most people, I’ve made a lot of mistakes and at times been crueler than I’d have liked, but those instances have tapered off as I’ve gotten older. Looking back, I now count myself lucky that YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and blogging didn’t exist when I was at my worst. Human beings need to learn lessons in order to get better, of course, but there’s a difference between learning a lesson and being humiliated on blogs and social-networking sites around the world, and then having that humiliation haunt you forever via search engines.
I believe a guy who calls his bartender fat is not a guy I’d like to hang out with, but I’m not sure that guy should have to explain a mean thing he said once in every job interview he has for the rest of his life. At a certain point the bully becomes the bullied.