The Dark Side of 'Webtribution'
By ELIZABETH BERNSTEIN
Imagine this scenario: Every person you know—each family member, friend, co-worker and casual acquaintance—receives an anonymous email from a stranger making terrible accusations about you.
How would you feel?
Renee Holder knows: "Devastated."
Several years ago, Ms. Holder discovered that dozens of her MySpace friends had received an anonymous email calling her a tramp and a home-wrecker.
For weeks, she tried to counter the allegations, which she says came from her new boyfriend's former girlfriend. She methodically contacted each person she believed received the email and explained that she hadn't started dating her boyfriend until months after he had broken up with his ex.
But the harm was already done. Family members called her and questioned her morals. Co-workers whispered about her behind her back. Several friends cut her off completely.
"It took me far longer to repair the damage than it took that woman to create it," says Ms. Holder, a 34-year-old customer-service representative in Austin, Texas, who eventually married her boyfriend. "In a matter of minutes, she spread a rumor internationally."
For much of human history, exacting retribution on your enemies—as opposed to fantasizing about it—was too much of a hassle for most people to bother with. It involved duels, poison or, at the very least, clever rumors that took ingenuity to create and patience to spread. By the time you had devised a revenge plot, you typically had cooled off and come to your senses.
That's not the case anymore. Thanks to the Internet, vengeance—let's call it "Webtribution"—is easier, and nastier, than ever. And it's also a whole lot more prevalent. The Internet permits us to be impulsive and anonymous. It requires a minimum amount of work: You can ruin someone's life while sitting on the couch watching TV. And it provides a maximum amount of pain.
"It's perfect for public humiliation," says Jacquelyn Eschbach, an editor at a university in Philadelphia.
She should know. When she found out her husband was cheating on her last March, she logged onto his Facebook account, deleted all his privacy settings—allowing anyone to see his page—and created a new status update for him: "Moving back to my mom's because my wife caught me cheating with a woman from work."
Almost immediately, her husband's friends began sending questions, which Ms. Eschbach answered, acting as him. She named the other woman and explained that the affair had been going on for four years and had been carried on over lunch, sometimes at the woman's house, sometimes in a car. She asked if anyone had a room for rent. Finally, she disparaged his physical attributes, adding that "I am surprised Jackie stayed with me for so long."
"I wanted everyone to know what a jerk he was, and this was the easiest way to do it without saying it to each person's face," says Ms. Eschbach, 39 years old.