Should The Internet Track Down One Man's Manic Pixie Dream Girl? (Probably Not.)

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At Slate, Amanda Hess argues the internet ought to halt its quest to track down one guy's manic pixie dream girl. The guy in question is a New Zealander who met an American woman in Hong Kong on New Year's Eve last year:

Last year, 25-year-old New Zealander Reese McKee was celebrating New Year’s Eve in Hong Kong, traipsing among the brilliant lights of the city, when he happened upon an American woman crying alone on the side of the road. He told her jokes. She laughed. They drank. They danced. They reconnected with the friends she had lost earlier in the evening. Then, they parted ways at 6 a.m. But not before this sad, attractive mystery woman left Reese with two fateful words: “Find me.”

Hess points out, very reasonably, that sometimes, people who meet a stranger on New Year’s Eve and leave that stranger no contact information would prefer not to be found. And that we shouldn’t be so motivated by a stranger’s unverifiable story, even if it reminds us of movies we've seen.

If Reese had just been like, “I am looking to hunt down a woman. All I have is her name, general location, and this photograph she never consented to be blasted across the Internet,” we would all probably be like, “Dude—leave Katie alone.” But thread in a few personal details about hurt, heartbreak, and personal discovery, and we’re all asking, “Do you recognize this face?” in the service of remedying Reese’s (deeply thematic) sense of loss.

I think the baseline problem here is that the attention of the internet scales its collective attention very badly. It’s not particularly creepy for one guy to look for a stranger he met once. It’s terrifying to imagine a mob of people trying to do the same. You see this dynamic more often in stories about people being shamed online -- our Reddit typewriter guy, or human flesh search engines. Someone does something a little wrong, but the details of their story are compelling enough to spread widely. A crowd assembles, and that crowd punishes the bad guy disproportionately. There’s a reason why mob justice is considered one of the less great kinds of justice (below both poetic justice and normal courtroom justice).