A friend of mine once likened using social media platforms to stepping into real world version of Mos Eisley spaceport: “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.”
Now there’s a hard truth. Another important side to using social media platforms such Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, however, is that they’re necessities for anyone growing a business, seeking to establish a brand or desiring interaction with others.
For every scumbag and villain one can encounter on the web, there are just as many potential partners and allies to be found. But it’s that second statement, the one about caution, that colors every episode of Syfy’s unscripted series “The Internet Ruined My Life,” premiering at 10 p.m. tonight, Wednesday, March 9.
Each subject featured in the series has been negatively impacted by social media interactions in a very specific way. But while some were targeted simply for speaking their minds or misplacing their trust, others brought consequences upon themselves due to utter mindlessness and stupidity.
There’s a huge difference between those two versions of Internet ruin, and the fact that “The Internet Ruined My Life” conflates them within each episode makes the show shallower than it could have been.
It may be stating the obvious to say that interacting with the Internet via social media entails an element of risk. This is particularly true for women and minorities. In a few famous cases, some of which are featured in “The Internet Ruined My Life,” people have received death threats and been forced to upend their lives over a single tweet about ostensibly benign subjects, like an un-P.C. joke on a late night TV show, or a statement on what it’s like to be a woman in the male-dominated gamer’s world.
The three preview episodes provided by Syfy feature people thrust into the public eye due to their actions on social media and for a variety of reasons. The series opens with Suey Park, the young cultural activist who reacted to a satirical tweet of a line of dialogue from Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” by creating the #CancelColbert hashtag.
Whether one agrees with Park’s social media campaign or her views is beside the point; a reasonable person would not condone her being stalked and hunted for months afterward, effectively silencing her.
Another subject featured in episode two, video game designer Brianna Wu, continues to publicly stand against misogyny in the game industry despite being savagely targeted by #Gamergate trolls who, to this day, still send her death and rape threats.
Allyson Pereira talks about how a topless photo made public by her high school ex-boyfriend resulted in ascending levels of bullying and slut-shaming; Pereira appears in the third episode due to her empowering role as an anti-bullying activist, a role thrust upon her in the most toxic fashion.
These same episodes also feature a fun-loving Brit who was detained by Homeland Security after he cheerily tweeted that he was ready to “destroy America” (invoking British slang for partying); and a chef lured into a Facebook fight by vegans who derailed his career after he used a vicious pejorative in reaction to a threat they made.
Before Pereira tells her story, the third episode opens with Cameron Jankowski, the Taco Bell employee who posted a photo of himself urinating on nachos proudly posting it with the tagline, “Guess where I work? #pissolympics #nachos.”
“The Internet Ruined My Life” attempts to fit all of these tales of Internet ruin into an “Investigation Discovery”-style format, with the actual people recounting their tales as reenactors portray the story in silent, scripted segments.
This works for Investigation Discovery’s true crime format, largely because the subject’s victimhood is not in dispute. But using the term to cover everyone featured in “The Internet Ruined My Life” is pushing it. If you allegedly urinate on a plate of nachos at your fast food job, post a photo and brag about it on social media, then experience negative consequences because of that…does that make you a victim?
Granted, there’s something to be said for the fact that Jankowski was 19 at the time, deeply obsessed with being “Internet famous” and looking for any way possible to gain Internet followers. One of his friends interviewed during his segment cheerfully calls him an idiot, which is about right.
One also could argue that his actions, though dangerously dumb, may not have merited being doxxed by the hacktivist group Anonymous. But putting Jankowski’s story on the same level as Wu’s, or Park’s – or even that of C.D. Hermelin, another subject whose image was used without his permission in an insulting anti-hipster meme –weakens the show’s central message.
Doing so leads one to wonder what The Internet Ruined My Life’s purpose is meant to be. Is it a warning? At what point does editing oneself become self-imposed censorship, drowning important but controversial thoughts that one has a right to share? Are subjects like Jankowski there to teach us a lesson? Or are they simply gleaning a few more seconds of fame by embracing the disasters they created, and confessing their sins on television?
It might have been interesting if “The Internet Ruined My Life” narrowed its focus and spent more time examining the longer-term impact these split-second decisions or 140-character thought-bursts ended up having on the lives of its subjects. Because the Internet, in addition to ruining lives, also has an elephant’s memory when it comes to these kinds of stories, and its method of determining who should be forgiven is strange and inscrutable.
One doesn’t really get a profound sense of this idea by watching this forgettable series, which is truly a shame.