Everyone on Twitter, as Jon Ronson makes terrifyingly clear, is living in a glass house. A single tasteless joke or out-of-context comment can evoke a public shaming capable of real-life ruin. But that hasn’t stopped most of us from throwing stones.
“So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” Ronson’s investigation into the world of online shaming, is a modern-day horror story: cringe-inducing, anxiety-provoking, and so gripping it’s impossible to put down. Although the stocks and the pillory were outlawed nearly 200 years ago, after our forebears deemed them cruel and dehumanizing, Ronson argues compellingly that the Internet has revived the practice of public humiliation and given it greater reach in recent years.
Take the two guys at a conference for tech developers who got a case of the giggles over a piece of hardware called a “dongle” and the phrase “forking someone’s repo,” which means taking a copy of someone else’s software. In a crowded auditorium, the young men snickered quietly about “a really big dongle,” and said of the presenter onstage, “I’d fork that guy’s repo.” Even people too sophisticated to find it amusing would likely agree that the joke was as harmlessly dumb as the “That’s what she said” bits on “The Office.”
A woman sitting in front of them happened to turn and snap a picture while they talked, but they didn’t think anything of it until a conference organizer pulled them aside and said there had been a complaint about their sexual comments. The woman had paraphrased their jokes and posted their photo on Twitter for her 12,000 followers to see — and retweet to their friends. Some of them congratulated her for “the ‘noble’ way she’d ‘educated’ the men behind her.” Two days later, one of the men, a father of three, was fired from the job he loved.
Then the backlash began. As many people as had congratulated the woman for taking a stand now came to the defense of the man who’d lost his job over a dumb joke. Some sent the woman vicious threats, and one person hacked into her employer’s website and crashed it. The next day, she, too, was fired.
The anecdote illustrates one of Ronson’s key points: What begins as a gleeful piling-on by Internet crusaders looking to deliver some well-deserved comeuppance doesn’t usually stop there. The Welsh journalist and author of “The Psychopath Test” and “The Men Who Stare at Goats” traces the arc of public shaming from the early moments of satisfying schadenfreude to the devastating, often lasting effects of a shattered reputation for both the shamed and the shamers.
Ronson acknowledges the allure of harnessing social media’s power to expose wrongdoing. Shaming, he argues, isn’t a form of sadistic group madness; it’s motivated by a righteous impulse to reform bad behavior and make the world a better place. He admits having done it so often himself that he’s lost track of all the people he’s shamed. The consequences for the people on both sides of Donglegate, and myriad others, have changed his mind.
The book offers varying case studies in viral opprobrium, from people guilty of serious misdeeds — Jonah Lehrer and Mike Daisey, who fabricated parts of a bestselling book and crowd-pleasing monologue, respectively — to those guilty only of bad taste and terrible misjudgment, like Justine Sacco, who was excoriated for tweeting as she left for vacation, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
A diligent investigator and a wry, funny writer, Ronson manages to be at once academic and entertaining. He scrutinizes the role of public shame in the traditional court system and in Twitter’s court of public opinion. He explores the ways people can (or can’t) recover from public humiliation. And he calls for circumspection and empathy to prevent social media users from becoming a roving online lynch mob — not just because of the damage a mob does to its victims, but also because it creates a world in which everyone lives in fear of being next; a world, as he puts it, “where the smartest way to survive is to be bland.”
Ronson tells a powerful cautionary tale, aimed not at objectionable tweeters but at the Internet avengers who enforce frontier justice. The prevailing lesson here isn’t “Don’t make bad jokes online.” It’s “Let he who is without bad jokes cast the first stone.”
Jennifer Latson is writing a book about Williams syndrome. Follow her on Twitter @JennieLatson.