Monica Lewinsky is back in the spotlight, this time as an activist working to end cyberbullying and online shaming.
Almost two decades after she was thrust into international infamy for her affair with then President Bill Clinton, Lewinsky has emerged as a fierce advocate for victims of online shaming, arguing that her experience as a 22-year-old intern made her “patient zero” of online internet shaming, perhaps the earliest example of what internet shame can do to someone’s life.
If you were a brand, what brand would you be?
That’s a question I was asked in an interview. A job interview, just a few years ago. Let me tell you, when you’re Monica Lewinsky, that’s a loaded f*cking question.
All of you here today touch marketing and advertising … with successful, established and respected companies. You are familiar with what it means to shepherd, nurture, shape and grow your brand … and, while unfortunate, it is likely that at one point or another you have been at the center of a “brand crisis” — when your brand’s narrative ran away from you.
But, can you imagine what that is like when the brand, isyou? You. Personally. Your likeness. Your name. Your values. Your history. Your soul.
That’s what happened to me in 1998.
Gossip websites, paparazzi, reality programming, politics, news outlets and sometimes hackers all traffic in shame. It’s led to desensitization and a permissive environment online to troll, harass, invade privacy and cyber bully.
This shift, has created what Professor Nicolaus Mills calls … a Culture of Humiliation. And in this Culture of Humiliation, there is another kind of price tag attached to public shaming. The price does not measure the cost to the victim – which Tyler [Clementi] and too many others have paid,but rather, the price measures the profit of those who prey on them.
This violation of others is raw material efficiently and ruthlessly mined, packaged, and… sold at a profit. Whether tallied in dollars, clicks, likes or just the perverse thrill of exposure…A marketplace has emerged … where shame is a commodity. Public humiliation an industry. How is the money made? Clicks.
The more shame, the more clicks; the more clicks, the more advertising dollars. The more advertising dollars — you can see where this is going — the more of what sells … shame.
Of course, this is not an indictment of advertising dollars. Nothing wrong with advertising dollars … and everyone in the room can agree on that!
But I believe we can also agree that there are boundaries where profit halts and social responsibility steps in.
Now, we’re in a dangerous cycle: the more we click on this kind of gossip, the more numb we get to the human lives behind it … and the more numb we get, the more we click.
All the while, someone is making money off the back of another’s suffering.
Political commentator Sally Kohn pointed out in a Ted talk on clickbait, that because of online algorithms, we … are now co-creating our content by clicking behavior. As she said, “we are the editors of the new media. Clicking is a public act. “
I would argue, a moral act, too. We don’t stop to think that with a click on clickbait, we are entering the online Coliseum.
Building a more compassionate society is going to be a bilateral exercise between individuals and the brands that represent their aspirations, their values and their truths. People make brands. If people are compassionate, brands will be compassionate in return.
We can lead one another to a more compassionate, more empathic place. We can help change behavior. We can all learn from our mistakes and be more resilient. And we can together make a society where the sometimes distancing effect of technology doesn’t remove our fundamental humanity.
All of the most vibrant creative minds in the world are here — and here this week. You are the creative engines that will drive our culture moving forward.
Will you help me?
And so I end, where I began: if you were a brand, what brand would you be?