The Internet loves an opportunity to feel good about itself almost as much as it loves an opportunity to shame.
On Monday, 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was arrested after bringing a homemade clock to school that police described as a "hoax bomb." The story of a Muslim teen in Texas wrongfully accused of making a bomb had all the right ingredients to set the Internet immediately in motion. Soon after the Dallas Morning News published a story Tuesday evening that highlighted the absurdity of the arrest, the Twitter hashtag #IStandWithAhmed was born.
Wednesday morning, Mohamed's family started a Twitter account to capitalize on the thousands of tweets the hashtag had already amassed. Within hours, the account had more than 30,000 Twitter followers.
The police soon announced that they weren't pursuing charges. Just two days after the arrest, the Internet had not only succeeded in righting the wrong, but Mohamed was trending on Twitter with invitations from President Obama and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to come hang out.
It was an Internet fairytale come true. Hurray!
While it's an example of the Internet's power to right wrongs through extreme publicity, and broadcast social norms such that other principals will hesitate before punishing a Muslim teen for an engineering project, it also highlights just how rapid and intense virality can be for those at the center of a social media storm.
When stories like Cecil the lion or Rachel Dolezal break, the Internet's self-righteous masses are quick to pile on shame. Recently, these shows of Web-wide moral superiority have attracted criticism, and for good reason. The Internet shame machine accomplishes little other than to villainize in exchange for a boost in the vocal Internet citizen's self-worth. The Tweet cycle moves on, but the victim of the shame machine probably doesn't. (Just ask Justine Sacco.)
But how much better is the Internet's feel-good machine?
We all glom onto a story like Mohamed's because, like public shaming, it makes us feel good. We can simply send out a tweet affixed with #IStandWithAhmed and prove to the world that we take a stand against things like racism, racial profiling and Islamophobia. (Our brains, by the way, are driven to both for the same reason: jumping into the conversation provides the social validation that lights up the brain's reward centers.)
But just as the Cecil saga simplified a complicated story about trophy killing in Africa into an online assault of a Minnesota dentist, Mohamed's swift social media-led victory cheapens a story about systemic bias against Muslims in America and turns it into a warm, fuzzy, feel-good moment.
The problem with this isn't just that it's lazy activism, it's that for Mohamed and that Minnesota dentist, the end result may be basically the same.
Perhaps Mohamed will be lucky enough to get a scholarship from his turn in the viral media limelight. He'll probably get some swag and trips to meet with politicians. He's already gotten a scholarship to space camp. (The Minnesota dentist had supporters, too.)
But Mohamed is also bound to be villainized by people who are racist or Islamophobic or perhaps, like Bobby Jindal, simply think the cops and school officials were doing their job.
Either way, Mohamed is now a 14-year-old kid not just subject to the ebbs and flows of high school popularity, but also, overnight, the pressures of internet fame.
“It's a blessing and a curse,” his 17-year-old sister told the Dallas Morning News. “I don’t think he’ll ever be able to live normally again.”
Sometimes this kind of happenstance fame works out. Another teen who was at the center of the Internet feel-good machine last year for designing a prom dress that silenced her bullies, Kyemah McEntyre, is now designing dresses for the red carpet. But it can also be a lot for a teen to handle. "Alex from Target," the cute teen boy who was catapulted to fame after a photo of him bagging goods at Target went viral, said he received death threats and that he was afraid to leave his house.
"The pile of rewards and expectations on Ahmed's fragile shoulders is more about us and our anxieties than about him and what he most needs now: some quieter restitution of the wrong he endured," the author Teju Cole wrote. "I think we're too fond of the flashy stories that give us an instantaneous moral glow."
Fame is no longer a choice — it's force-fed by Internet mobs.
Ahmed Mohamed said he was just hoping to impress his teachers when he brought his homemade clock to school. But now, long after we've all moved on to another Twitter trending cause, for better or worse, that alarm clock will be the thing that defines him online. We may not always stand with Ahmed, but thanks to our tweets and favs and likes, he will always be #IStandWithAhmed.