I am a local business owner, a supporter of independent Franklin Street and a lover of pizza, so as you can imagine, I was concerned this week to find local favorite Italian Pizzeria III embroiled in a scandal over allegedly kicking out a patron for breastfeeding at their restaurant.
It is a serious allegation, and one that certainly deserves a conversation about how we treat women who breastfeed in public. But my concern quickly turned to frustration when I saw the way most people were choosing to have that conversation – splashed across the social media accounts of IP3, attached to their name, before any specific details had been confirmed.
Call it our thirst for instant gratification. Call it the intoxicating empowerment of being able to post a tweet or status that reaches literally around the world. Whatever the reasons, when we think something has been done wrong, no matter the level of offense, we are #DONE with the alleged perpetrator, be it a business or an individual. And usually, long after the digital high-fiving and often-misplaced activism is over, real lives are ruined.
Such was the focus of a recent New York Times Magazine piece by Jon Ronson, which examined the lives of people like Justine Sacco (infamous for #HasJustineLanded), who either said or did undeniably inappropriate things online before being crushed by the judge, jury and executioner of the Internet’s crusading public.
Ronson’s premise is simple: Emboldened by our certainty that we are doing the “right” thing, the indignant Internet pile-ons we engage in often go far beyond the scope of punishment that the initial actions warranted. When used to hold powerful institutions and companies like UNC or McDonald’s accountable, this communal outrage is handled by PR teams equipped with the tools for damage control. When leveled against individuals like Sacco or small businesses like IP3, the effects are crippling, both immediately and long into the future.
If Italian Pizzeria III is found to have done nothing wrong – and we may never know the full truth of what happened – it is a naive mistake to believe that all, or even most, of the Facebook users who left one-star reviews about the restaurant not being “family-friendly” will ever remember or think to take their posts down.
It is also a mistake to believe that those reviews, as inaccurate as they may be at that point, will suddenly become innocuous with regard to IP3’s reputation.
It’s easy – and logical – to think that once a matter like this is settled, reviews that run counter to the facts will be immediately rendered irrelevant, and therefore harmless. But comments left in the ether leave ripples we rarely see, and though it may only nudge the occasional family into going somewhere else for dinner, multiply that across weeks. Across months.
That perceivably small loss of business is a hit that McDonald’s can take. It’s one that maybe IP3 can’t.
As is the case in instances of sexual assault, we need to be careful to not shame or discredit those who come forward with accounts of mistreatment, as this creates a cycle of silence that further entrenches the problem. A woman breastfeeding falls into this category, and we should not disbelieve her because we love IP3's pizza, or because we love Franklin Street.
But we need to find a better outlet for our opinions, a better platform for debate, than the reviews section of a local business – one that may have done nothing wrong, and one that has likely spent more time making flailing attempts at PR this week than pizzas, the thing they are actually equipped to make.
Ryan Cocca is the founder and co-owner of West Franklin St. clothing store Thrill City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @youaintryan on Twitter.