MINOT, N.D. — Here in Minot, there's a very popular local Facebook group called, cheekily, the "Minot Whiners and Complainers."
It was, per its description, "created as a joke" because there were so many people complaining on local yard sale and news pages that a need for a new venue for Minoters (Minotians?) to "vent or complain about stuff" was needed.
The page now has over 17,000 members.
The content is about what you'd expect.
Mostly harmless stuff.
I say mostly because there is an element of public shaming present in the group. Sins, as varied as parking erratically or having an unkempt lawn, are routinely castigated in posts that are complete with pictures that also divulge private information such as addresses or license plate numbers.
What began as a light-hearted attempt to let people "vent or complain" about their community has taken on the appearance of ochlocracy.
Perhaps your community has some similar online venue where conversations about park board meetings and community events are increasingly shouldered out by the petty machinations of mobile vulgus.
It is not my intention to single out the whiners and complainers of Minot as some egregious example of the fickle mob. It's just the most glaring example in my community of our society's moves toward a vengeful, omnipresent sort of populism.
A populism that's a threat to our society.
Human beings have always had complaints about their neighbors. What's new is the ability to weaponize those complaints with powerful online tools capable of turning a minor misstep, a trivial work-a-day annoyance, into something with real-life consequences.
Yes, cancel culture is a facet of this, but the problem is bigger than that.
Orwell's famous dystopia from his novel 1984 was premised on a state-based dictatorship, one complete with omnipresent surveillance enabling a totalitarian regime of censorship. It is through that lens that we generally view the threat of "Big Brother." We think that sort of suffocating oppression can only be something a regime, a government, does to us, and not something we could very easily do to one another.
What if, in 2021, the most palpable threat of oppressive authoritarianism, the most present danger of a surveillance state, comes not from the government but from us? The hoi polloi, as empowered by the tools of Silicon Valley?
Not only have we willingly given up much of our personal privacy to corporate behemoths like Google and Facebook and Twitter, we gleefully use the platforms those companies have provided us to police one another.
What we're left with is a sort of crowd-sourced police state that can make you into a reviled local celebrity, at least for a time, if you maybe didn't park your car as straight as you should have at the shopping mall.
It's one thing to shine the bright spotlight of public scrutiny on, say, elected officials or other people who have opted to be in the public eye.
It's another to target a private person.
Am I making too much of all this?
Maybe, but ask yourself, which was are the trends heading? Toward more understanding and grace, or more judgment and vindictiveness?
Call me an Eeyore, but I say the latter.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.