“Imagine waking up one morning with the whole world suddenly talking to you,” Monica Lewinsky said at the start of 15 minutes of shame (Documentaries from the sky). “Believe me, I know a little something about this.” With Lewinsky as producer, narrator, and self-proclaimed “patient zero,” this documentary examined the rise of public shame and culture cancellation. The premise was timely and the program produced with class. The biggest shame here is the mess it has become.
The film’s first mistake was Lewinsky blaming his own Internet humiliation. Sure, the 1998 Starr Report was posted online, but how many actually read it on Yahoo or AltaVista? We started to see Lewinsky being joked by TV talk show host Jay Leno and appearing on the front pages of the newspapers. Quite far from Silicon Valley.
Twitter and Facebook may be bear traps, but they have been blamed for all the ills of mankind. As author Roxane Gay put it: “Social media is a good idea, but people mess it up. Historians have pointed out how much public shame has been with us since the days of Adam and Eve, Tar, Feathers, and Pillories, and later, the tabloid trial.
In fact, many of the scandals here were sparked by the mainstream media. We caught up with Matt Colvin, who bought 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer to sell at inflated prices. It wasn’t until the New York Times published an article about him that Colvin’s life fell apart.
The film was at its best when it told the intimate stories of ordinary people targeted by online crowds. Colvin still has mental health issues. His interviews were heartbreaking. The fate of Emmanuel Cafferty, a Hispanic public service worker fired after his restless fingers were mistaken for a white supremacist hand sign, was beyond belief. Other case studies were very incongruous. Black college student Taylor Dumpson, who pursued her racist trolls, was admirable but was on an entirely different agenda.
There was a good documentary hidden somewhere here. Sadly, it was clouded by a frustrating and inconsistent narrative and a thesis full of holes. A shame indeed.