Bad parking, loud talking -- no transgression is too trivial to document online
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Last month, Eva Burgess was eating breakfast at the Rose Cafe in Venice, Calif., when she remembered she needed to make an appointment with her eye doctor. So the New York theater director got on her cellphone and booked a date.
Almost immediately, she started receiving "weird and creepy" calls directing her to a blog. There, under the posting "Eva Burgess Is Getting Glasses!" her name, cellphone number and other details mentioned in her call to the doctor's office were posted, along with the admonition, "next time, you might take your business outside." The offended blogger had been sitting next to Ms. Burgess in the cafe.
It used to be the worst you could get for a petty wrong in public was a rude look. Now, it's not just brutal police officers, panty-free celebrities and wayward politicians who are being outed online. The most trivial missteps by ordinary folks are increasingly ripe for exposure as well. There is a proliferation of new sites dedicated to condemning offenses ranging from bad parking (Caughtya.org) and leering (HollaBackNYC.com) to littering (LitterButt.com) and general bad behavior (RudePeople.com). One site documents locations where people have failed to pick up after their dogs. Capturing newspaper-stealing neighbors on video is also an emerging genre.
Helping drive the exposes are a crop of entrepreneurs who hope to sell advertising and subscriptions. One site that lets people identify bad drivers is about to offer a $5 monthly service, for people to register several of their own plate numbers and receive notices if they are cited by other drivers. But the traffic and commercial prospects for many of the sites are so limited that clearly there is something else at work.
The embrace of the Web to expose trivial transgressions in part represents a return to shame as a check on social behavior, says Henry Jenkins, director of the comparative media studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Some academics believe shame became less powerful as a control over everyday interactions with strangers in all but very small neighborhoods or social groups, as people moved to big cities or impersonal suburbs where they existed more anonymously.
The sites documenting minor wrongs are the flip side of an online vigilantism movement that tackles meatier social issues. Community organization Cop Watch Los Angeles encourages users to send in stories and pictures of people being brutalized or harassed by police, for posting on the Web. The governor of Texas plans to launch a site this year that will air live video of the border, in hopes that people will watch and report illegal crossings. In a trial run in November, the site received more than 14,000 emails. Tips included spottings of individuals swimming in the Rio Grande, a person wearing a large white hat and a "wild" boy at the border. In China, Web postings have become a powerful social weapon, used to rally thousands of people to hound a man who allegedly had an affair with a married woman.
For people singled out, the sites can represent an unsettling form of street justice, with no due process. Chris Roth's driving skills have been roundly criticized online by self-anointed traffic monitors. "This man needs his license revoked," wrote one poster, who accused Mr. Roth of cutting in and out. Another charged him with driving on a shoulder and having the audacity to "flip off" an old lady who wouldn't let him cut in.
Mr. Roth found the critiques when an anonymous writer added a comment to his MySpace profile in late November directing him to PlateWire, one of the handful of new sites devoted to bad driving. There, a user had posted Mr. Roth's license-plate information -- his vanity plate reads "IDRVFAST" -- and complained about his reckless driving style. Subsequent posters found and listed his full name, cellphone number and link to his MySpace page, as well as comments like "big jerk" and "meathead." (He has no idea how they found his information.)
"There is no accountability. You can just go online and say whatever you want whether it's factual or not," says the 37-year-old Mr. Roth, of Raleigh, N.C., who works in technology sales. He admits he is an impatient driver and speeds, but he has no plans to change his driving style based on posts by anonymous commentators. "Who are they to decide what is safe or not?" he says.
If you type "ycantpark" into photo-sharing site Flickr, there are about 200 photos of bad parking jobs at Yahoo Inc.'s Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters. The company says the posts were started anonymously around 2005 by employees disgruntled with the parking situation. During that year, Yahoo hired more than 2,100 new employees, and finding a parking space become difficult. "I don't want to have my car posted up there so I definitely think twice about how I park," says Yahoo spokeswoman Heidi Burgett.
The digital age allows critics to quickly find a fair amount of information about their targets. One day last November, at about 11:30 a.m., a blog focused on making New York streets more bike-friendly posted the license plate number of an SUV driver who allegedly accelerated from a dead stop to hit a bicycle blocking his way.
At 1:16 p.m., someone posted the registration information for the license plate, including the SUV owner's name and address. (The editor of the blog thinks the poster got the information from someone who had access to a license-plate look-up service, available to lawyers, private investigators and police.) At 1:31 p.m., another person added the owner's occupation, his business's name and his title. Ten minutes later, a user posted a link to an aerial photo of the owner's house. Within another hour, the posting also included the accused's picture and email address.
The SUV's owner, Ian Goldman, the chief executive of Celerant Technology Corp. in the New York City borough of Staten Island, declined to comment for this article. According to an email exchange posted on the blog, Mr. Goldman said that he had lent the vehicle in question to a relative with "an urgent medical situation" and that he was not aware of any incident. The alleged victim has decided to drop the matter since the damage to the bicycle, which he was standing next to at the time, was under $20. Last month, Aaron Naparstek, editor of the blog, says he removed Mr. Goldman's home and email addresses from the site after receiving a "lawyerly cease and desist" email asking that the whole posting be deleted.
Other sites have also received complaints asking that posts be removed. Most say they will remove identifying information like phone numbers or full names when it comes to their attention or if asked. Yet lawyers say alleged wrongdoers shamed online typically have little legal recourse under libel and privacy laws if the accusations in postings are true, if they are posters' opinions about behavior witnessed in a public place and if the personal information listed is available to the public. "It becomes very difficult when it comes to the shaming sites in terms of what you can do in creating a case," says Daniel Solove, an associate professor of law at George Washington University Law School, who is working on a book about gossiping, shaming and privacy on the Internet.
Caughtya.org hosts pictures of cars illegally parked in handicapped spaces. (Other objects qualify, too; one photo from Plano, Texas, is called "Big Rubber Chicken parked in accessible parking spaces.") Playground snoops can log onto the five-month-old Isaw-yournanny.blogspot.com, where users have posted details about nannies committing misdeeds, like feeding children Ho Hos.
Some of the sites are attracting little attention. Caughtya.org lists fewer than 10 U.S. infractions, RudePeople.com has about six stories of rudeness and Irate-Driver.com has none.
Many ask for donations to cover costs, but some owners are hoping to make money. Mark Buckman launched PlateWire in May after almost getting run off the road a few months earlier by several drivers, including one who was looking in his backseat and steering with his leg. The site now lists nearly 25,000 license-plate numbers, chastised for moves like tailgating with brights on and driving too slowly in the left lane. To drum up revenue, Mr. Buckman recently added advertising and an online store with branded merchandise. Users in about 15 states can also pay $2 to have a postcard sent to an offending driver, directing the accused to the site. He plans to launch another site this year that will allow people to rate and complain about local businesses and individuals. "If I can create jobs and create an empire that would be awesome, but my main goal is to make a Web site that can actually make real world changes," Mr. Buckman says.
Yahoo photo site Flickr has an "I hate stupid people" group that focuses on shots of regular people parking or dressing badly, among other misdeeds. It has nearly 60 members, as does the similar "Jerks" group, for pictures of "neighbor cats pooping on your lawn" or SUVs parked in compact spots. On Google Inc.'s YouTube, users have contributed videos of minor wrongs, like people cutting in line. On the blogs, one poster refers to this new form of revenge as "blogslapping," a word that previously just referred to when one blogger criticizes another's blog.
After Tim Halberg's Santa Barbara (Calif.) News-Press didn't show up on his doorstep for six days straight last March, he grabbed his camera and launched a stakeout. He stayed up all night waiting for the newspaper to arrive. When it did, he attached a note declaring, "I'm watching you! Don't ever steal my paper again," and left it on the driveway. Then he waited with his front door open a crack to catch the thief. The robed culprit: His neighbor at the time, a man who looks to be in his 50s. Mr. Halberg captured him on video walking up to the paper, reading the note and walking away.
Mr. Halberg never approached the neighbor about the issue directly, but he found four of the older newspapers in front of his house the next day. The 26-year-old wedding photographer posted the video on YouTube, where it's been viewed more than 850 times.
Online shaming is happening across the world, with several well-publicized cases in China. Last fall, one blogger posted photos and the license plate number of a Beijing driver who got out of his car and threw aside the bicycle of a woman blocking his way. The driver was quickly identified by Internet vigilantes and soon apologized on television for his behavior. And on a popular Web site last year, after one husband accused a student of having an affair with his wife, other users posted the student's phone number and other personal details. After that, groups of people showed up at his university and parents' home, according to some reports. The student denied the affair.
Some suggest that public shaming could be used here as a tool for social betterment. In a paper in the November issue of the New York University Law Review, Lior Strahilevitz, a law professor at the University of Chicago, suggested that roads would be safer if every car had a "How's My Driving?" placard on the bumper asking other drivers to report bad behavior.
The neighbor-as-Big-Brother approach is already being deployed offline. Since August, spectators at Cincinnati Bengals home games have been able to call 513-381-JERK to complain about rowdy fans. When a call comes in, security zooms in on the area with stadium cameras, confirms there's a problem and dispatches security. Initially, the hotline was receiving more than 100 calls a game, about 75 percent of which were crank calls. Reports were recently down to about 40 a game, with less than 25 percent being crank calls.
Posting a snarky message online is often safer than confronting bad behavior face to face. "You never know how people are going to react in person," says Scott Terry, 32, who works in advertising in Chicago. Last spring, he posted a photo on Flickr of a "cell phone bus yapper" who disrupted his morning commute. The caption: "Can't you use your inside voice?"
For others, posting can be revenge enough. In April, Grace Davis, 51, a stay-at-home mom in Santa Cruz, Calif., captured a "pushy customer" wearing a Hermes-like scarf and black sunglasses while ordering around sales people at Molinari Delicatessen in San Francisco with words like "gimme." Ms. Davis posted the photo online and wrote "Not nice! No fresh Molinari raviolis for you, madam" over the woman's face. "I can just happily walk away," says Ms. Davis, "because as we say in New Age Santa Cruz, 'It's out in the universe now.'"
Many Web sites -- some general, some specific -- catalog everyday misdeeds committed by average people. Here is a sampling:
TRANSGRESSION: Bad driving
SITES: PlateWire.com AboveAverageDriver.com Irate-Driver.com BadDriving.com
COMMENTS: On these sites, users can report bad drivers and cite license plate numbers. At some, people can also report good drivers, though far fewer do so. At least eight PlateWire users have chastised themselves online, including one in Nevada last month who apologized for cutting another driver off in a post titled "Telling on Myself."
TRANSGRESSION: Bad or illegal parking
SITES: MyBikelane.com Caughtya.org youparklikeana -- hole.com
COMMENTS: Parking on the sidewalk, taking up two spaces, cramping in another driver -- they're all there. IParkLikeAnIdiot.com doesn't show many photos, but it says it sold about 30,000 bumper stickers displaying the site address last year, up from 10,000 in 2005.
TRANSGRESSION: Leaving dog droppings
SITES: Flickr.com YouTube.com
COMMENTS: Photos and videos on the two sites have captions like "bad owner." One YouTube chronicle, "a nice doggy's bad owner leaves a landmine on Dean Street in Brooklyn," has been viewed nearly 1,300 times since it went up in April.
TRANSGRESSION: Leering, whistling at women
SITES: HollaBackNYC.com and other HollaBack sites
COMMENTS: Women can post pictures and videos of men who leer or make comments like, "Hey baby, wanna make love??!!" HollaBackNYC.com launched in 2005, inspired by one woman who photographed a lewd man on the subway. Now, there are at least 14 other local sites in the U.S. and Canada.
COMMENTS: Site doesn't post license plate numbers of littering drivers, but it does act. Reported plateholders in participating states (Pennsylvania, Texas and North Carolina) get a notice -- the site sends the details to the state, which then mails a letter to the vehicle owner. For other states, the site may send an email to the governor.
TRANSGRESSION: Loud talking on a cellphone
SITES: Flickr.com RudePeople.com
COMMENTS: Flickr abounds with pictures of people talking loudly on cellphones or displaying bad cell etiquette. Could you be there? Photos have titles and comments like "TalksTooLoud," "Loud talker" and "Chatty McBlabsalot."
TRANSGRESSION: Yelling at children
COMMENTS: Five-month-old site has about 190 sightings so far, and most relate tales of bad behavior. Two more sites for nannies -- Isawyourmommy.blogspot.com and Isawnannysemployer.blogspot.com -- have since been launched in reaction.
First Published January 12, 2007 12:00 am