Melissa Schorr is the co-author, with Sue Scheff, of the new book Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate. She also has written the young adult novels Identity Crisis and Goy Crazy, she is a contributing editor at the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Glamour and Self. She lives in the Boston area.
Q: How did you and Sue Scheff come up with the idea for Shame Nation, and how did the two of you collaborate on the book?
A: I had just finished my second YA novel, a tale of teen cyberbullying, when my brilliant agent suggested I might want to collaborate with her client, online safety advocate Sue Scheff, for another book — my first non-fiction title, also on the timely topic of cyber-bullying, but this time aimed at adults, who, you know, can be bullied, too.
Sue’s last book, Google Bomb, was all about her own experience being vilified by a former client and then winning a landmark lawsuit in one of the earliest cases of online defamation. She had the expertise and contacts, I had the journalistic reporting and writing chops, so it was an excellent collaboration, me in Boston and her in Florida. Until Irma hit. But that’s another story.
Q: Monica Lewinsky wrote the book's foreword. What do you think her life story says about the impact of shaming?
A: We were impressed by Monica’s 2015 Ted Talk, "The Price of Shame," where she describes being “patient zero” — how she went going overnight from a private citizen into a global punchline.
But Monica’s “second act” also says something about digital resilience: she’s been able to reinvent herself as an anti-bullying advocate. (If you haven’t seen it already, check out the PSA ad, "In Real Life," which brilliantly reenacts the concept of online disinhibition effect—that people will direct the most outrageous slurs toward someone from behind a screen that they would never verbalize face to face.)
Q: How would you characterize the role of the internet in creating a "shame nation"? How does today's version of shaming differ from those of previous generations?
A: Of course, shaming has been around for centuries, over backyard fences, in the local paper. In my own backyard, we had the Puritans! But the internet has upped the stakes dramatically— it’s easily accessed, it’s worldwide, it’s forever.
Europe has passed the “Right to Be” forgotten — here in the U.S., we do not have that. Our online reputation now precedes us, and our prospects will be dramatically affected by what’s there, from employment and college opportunities… even to our love lives.
Q: Throughout the book, you offer suggestions and guidance. What would you say are some of the most valuable pieces of advice to confront shaming, and what do you see looking ahead?
A: The best piece of advice we can give, both to protect yourself from becoming a victim, as well as to ensure you are not about to post something that harms someone else, is to pause before you post. Is it something embarrassing? Offensive? Damaging? Invasive? Could it be twisted or misinterpreted?
Sadly, it’s not just what you post. We also need to be mindful that our real-life behavior can now be recorded, disseminated, and have devastating impacts as well — like the biker who was photographed flipping off POTUS, then fired by her employer.
What does this mean? Are we all on notice to be on guard at all times in fear of someone whipping out their cell phone? Not to be too dramatic, but this could ultimately be a real threat to free speech, where people become fearful to express their opinions, attend a rally, post a political view, for fear of such reprisals.
We half-joke that we should follow up with a sequel called “Shameless Nation” — when the behavior of everyone from YouTube celebrities to our politicians seems to be more shameless than not. And when every one of us has experienced a sexting scandal or a tweet-gone-wrong, who’s going to be left to judge?
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have two proposals in the works, both non-fiction collaborations with a new co-author, so it’s a tossup which one will move forward next — or hopefully, both!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: My alternate persona is professional matchmaker — I am lucky enough to get to edit the weekly Dinner with Cupid column for the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, so I’m in charge of matching up Boston-area singles for blind dates. The ways of love can be mysterious and at times infuriating, but I’m not going to give up until I get a wedding!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb