I have a like / hate relationship with social media: I kinda enjoy it, and reap the benefits from it from a business perspective, but I find it also appallingly awful at its worst. So I was morbidly excited to read So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which explores the darkness of our online discourse.
Jon Ronson’s new book dives into the darker side of social media usage, specifically Twitter. Mr. Ronson talks about people whose reputations have been torn limb from limb on his network of choice. For the first time since the 1830’s, when shaming was a legal punishment tool used in the U.S., we, the crowd, get to throw rotten vegetables at people. The topic is fascinating, his exploration of the concept thorough, and his writing witty and fresh. I couldn’t put the book down.
We see public shaming at work all the time. Someone does something that violates our moral code and collectively we all go bonkers. We mock them online. We share the links that mock them. We go into an online feeding frenzy. We become the ugly mob, and all the while, we feel convinced that what we’re doing is right. Ronson cite’s Gustave LeBon’s 19th century work on group madness, where he wrote “A crowd is only impressed by excessive sentiments. Exaggerate, affirm, resort to repetition, and never attempt to prove anything by reasoning.”
Recall Jonah Lehrer, the pop-science journalist whose book Imagine was ripped apart for containing manufactured Bob Dylan quotes and self-plagiarism. There was Justine Sacco, who Tweeted a racist AIDS joke and ended up as an international villain, and lost her social standing along with any trace of a career. Perhaps you remember the girl who gave the finger in Arlington National Cemetery. Or Adria Richards, whose Tweet got two programmers fired and brought upon herself a maelstrom of angry wrath from the software community.
Should these people have engaged in such activities? Probably not. Were they the “crimes of the century” as Ronson asks? No. But they were certainly acting stupidly and grossly misinformed about the power of Twitter. Reading their stories reminded me of Jon Favreau’s character in the movie Chef, who has no idea that Twitter is a public forum and starts trash-talking a restaurant critic. Whether we are disgusted by these people is one thing, but the severity of the punishment is another.
Ronson goes into great detail to describe what shaming does to a human, and it is not pretty. Shaming is dehumanising. It was abolished in the 1800’s because it was considered to be too brutal. Benjamin Rush, one of our founding fathers, excoriated the practice in a 1787 paper. What happens to the victims of the modern media shaming frenzy is a punishment that was considered so cruel in the 18th century that it was eventually outlawed.
The author also explores the psychology of the shamers and the mob. We’re not face-to-face with the victim in a pillory, tomato in hand. Rather we’re behind the relative comfort of our screens. Ronson writes, “I suppose that when shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be. The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche.”
It was fascinating and sickening to read about what happened to the people who were shamed, and Ronson does a good job presenting the shamees as multi-faceted human beings who know they screwed up. Reading So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed reminded me of reading Mary Roach’s book, Stiff, about cadavers. It deals with the science of the morbid, was utterly fascinating, and dealt with a dark subject with a great deal of insight and wit. The book certainly quelled any tendency I have to bump any self-righteous or vengeance-oriented posts.
I do, however, fundamentally disagree with Ronson’s dire warning of conformity and political correctness due to fear of ignominy. “We see ourselves as nonconformist, but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age. “Look!” we’re saying. “WE’RE normal! THIS is the average!” We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside it.”
Maybe Ronson has been spending too much time on Twitter and not enough time on Reddit. If you’re in the right venue you still get to enjoy the great wild west of the Internet.