Date finished: March 10th 2015
Jon Ronson, author of The Men Who Stare At Goats and The Psychopath Test, returns with his latest foray into the madness of the modern world, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.
Having already investigated an attempted reform of the Ku Klux Klan, interviewed real life superheroes (who are rather more underwhelming than they sound) and made friends with a man in Broadmoor, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there aren’t many more insane industries Ronson could investigate.
However, you’d have made an important oversight: the internet exists – a bottomless well of insanity ripe for tapping, and this is where Ronson takes us in his newest book.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, he tells us, started as a result of a run-in on Twitter with an identity stealing spambot. Ronson looked into it and found out it was an ‘infomorph’ which seems to be a euphemism for spambot. He filmed an encounter of himself asking the creators to take it down but they acted in an odd, defensive manner and he was forced to conclude that they were trolls. He uploaded the clip and before long a whole swathe of followers had tweeted in support of him and the spambot was removed.
He began to look into other victories achieved by public shaming on the internet and found that it was a rather powerful force for good. Intrigued, he began to look closer. At around the same time, science writer Jonah Lehrer was found to have self-plagiarised and fabricated quotes in his work, causing a minor scandal. Ronson went out to meet a disgraced Lehrer, and that’s when things get interesting.
Slowly but surely, Ronson’s view on internet shaming changes. He finds Lehrer ashamed and unable to find work. He investigates further and meets others who have felt the wrath of social media from people who made misguided to jokes to complete misunderstandings that went awry. He finds that victims often lost their jobs due to the pressure put on their employers by internet shamers. A couple of days of angry tweeting could result in a person’s life being turned upside down, their transgressions always a quick Google away.
Like with Ronson’s previous books he twists and turns constantly, finding new angles and new cases to add to the literature on the subject, interspersed with his trademark anxious humour, and skewering the absurd situations he finds himself in to provide a much-needed laugh here and there. Before long he’s interviewing the un-shame-able Max Mosley, finding classes which teach how not to feel shame, and researching ways in which people can undo the damage done by internet shaming.
What comes across most terrifyingly is the mob mentality on the internet, and the ways in which those who are targeted are relentlessly pursued. Most people will simply write something vitriolic, but in many cases their private details are hacked and put on the web, and their social media pages are trawled for further ammo.
It’s a morbidly fascinating look into the positive and negative power of social media as well as an insight into public anxiety and internet safety. The internet is still a young technology and we’re only just getting a handle on how much power it really has. As a result, this book is required reading, and a cautionary tale for all of us who are a little too invested in their social media profiles.