So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
In 2012, Jon Ronson was embroiled in a scandal of the kind that seems to happen to neo-gonzo journalists like him: a group of academics conducted a confusing experiment that involved creating a fake “Jon Ronson” Twitter profile.
Ronson shamed them into removing the profile and was impressed with the results. “When [the online community] deployed shame, we were utilising an immensely powerful tool. It was coercive, borderless, and increasing in speed and influence.” You can feel the issues already ticking: anything that lacks borders and enjoys accelerating power is bound to have unsavoury side effects.
Ronson is our current master of smarter-than-average pop nonfiction that combines social science, investigative journalism and no shortage of style. Here, he gets to discuss 4chan, schoolyard bullying, the absence of women in tech, This American Life, the complex process of hacking a person’s online reputation, and whether the porn industry is populated by people who’d learned to be immune to shame.
A fun section recounts his experiences in a formal “shame eradication workshop”. And except for a long part on the Stanford prison experiment, Ronson rarely covers the overvisited territory of his peers.
A chapter on one of his peers, Jonah Lehrer, whose own self-plagiarism scandal (and resultant “21st-century town square flogging”) is equal parts compassionate and scathing, serves as an example of Ronson’s strongest skill: balancing snappy journalism with humane treatment of his interviewees. In the case of PR executive Justine Sacco – remember her awful tweet, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white”? – we learn that after composing it, she “chuckled to herself, pressed send, and wandered around the airport for half-an-hour”, briefly wondering why none of her friends had retweeted or replied.
In focusing on such details, Ronson helps to build his argument that shaming dehumanises both the shamer and the shamed, a nuance easily lost in the “feedback loop” of online outrage, no matter how deserving the target.
Ronson and his subjects are strikingly candid about their fears, which is compelling if not always comfortable to read. But the book slowly turns out to be about something bigger than it seems: a survival guide to living with shame both public and private, an inevitable consequence of being human. CR
Picador, 304pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 28, 2015 as "Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed". Subscribe here.