Welcome to the panopticon

Have you heard about the “dog shaming” meme? It’s a trend where people post pictures of their pet dogs next to signs identifying their crimes on the Internet. For example: perhaps your pooch hasn’t been properly housebroken and has bathroom accidents in the house. Get a pen and paper and make a simple sign that says “I pee everywhere.” Take a picture of your dog next to the sign, post the picture on Facebook, and you have just participated in dog shaming.

This week police in West Virginia engaged in a sort of “human shaming” in order to identify people who participated in riots last week following the West Virginia University football team’s victory over the University of Texas.

In the immediate aftermath of the football win students and fans took the streets of Morgantown, West. Va. to celebrate. The festivities quickly got out of hand, with revelers throwing beer bottles and rocks. Eventually hooligans began setting fires. Morgantown fire officials believe more than 40 fires were deliberately started during the mayhem.

Unfortunately acts of “mob violence” such as this are not unprecedented. Yet modern technology may be a game-changer. Morgantown police and city leaders, along with WVU administrators, devised a strategy of “public shaming” in hopes of bringing those who participated in wreaking chaos to justice. The police created a photo album of pictures from the spree on Facebook and posted videos of the riots on Youtube. As a result they have already received dozens of tips identifying individuals in the photos and videos.

A spokesperson for the Morgantown police department said that, due to the proliferation of cell-phone pictures and video recording, “the anonymity they may have experienced in a crowd before is not as great” as it once was.

While this incident could be read as a victory of social networking sites and communication technology in fighting crime, it also highlights questions of privacy and anonymity in the digital age. Have we all voluntarily entered a 21st Century panopticon?

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