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Rebecca Heslin '12 and Professor David Shulman

Rebecca Heslin ’12 (Hellertown, Pa.) and Professor David Shulman are researching virtual slander, the kind of defamation that can be found all over Web 2.0.

It’s negative commentary that can be found on gossip sites like College ACB, humor sites like People of Wal-Mart, evaluation sites like RateMyProfessor, and social networking sites like Facebook. Where virtual slander occurs, there is indirect mocking of a specific person, group, or something that falls outside the norm.

“Slandering others has transitioned quickly onto the Internet, triggering what our paper explores as an era of ‘Stigma 2.0.,’ says Shulman, professor and head of anthropology and sociology.

He and Heslin have been researching the causes of this phenomenon and how stigma triggers the mocking. They have been collecting and analyzing data on how and where virtual mocking is occurring – ranging from cases of cyber-bullying to teasing between friends – and are writing a paper describing their findings. A version of the paper was accepted for presentation at the American Sociological Association national meeting in 2010.  Based on feedback from that presentation, the next step will be submission to a scholarly journal.

“I’ve gained invaluable insight into the human condition as it directly relates to virtual slander,” says Heslin, an anthropology and sociology major.  “While I knew of its existence and was never one to approve or partake in it, I have become so much more aware of its prevalence and extremely sensitive to the harm it can cause.  And although it’s never right, it’s very interesting to uncover the reasons why this type of mocking is used as a weapon.”

Heslin has been working on this EXCEL Scholars research project since last summer. As co-author of the paper she has been an equal partner, collecting data online, analyzing patterns of mocking, and theorizing about these phenomena.

“Becca is an excellent student and researcher who has also originated some of the important ideas in the paper,” Shulman says.

Heslin says she has gained an appreciation for conducting research as well as time management skills. She also learned how to use data input programs and honed her interviewing and writing skills. She says that working with Shulman is overwhelmingly positive.

“From day one, he assured me that I had equal weight in the project, and it’s remained that way since. Professor Shulman has given me appropriate responsibility, freedom, and praise.  And on top of that, whenever we meet he always has something new to teach me about our research and about life.  To say it has been a positive experience is an understatement,” she says.

Expert commentary from Shulman has been featured in U.S. News and World Report, the Associated Press, the New York Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and National Public Radio. He is the author of Talking Sociology as well as From Hire to Liar: The Role of Deception in the Workplace, published by Cornell University Press. He has received numerous awards, fellowships, and grants.

Heslin will undertake a senior honors thesis under Shulman’s supervision. She plans to enter graduate school and focus on marketing and brand identity.

“I think marketing and brand identification can be directly tied in with virtual slander and how the online world can affect how things are marketed and/or perceived,” she says.

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