If you’re anything like me and you remember a world before the advent of social media and ubiquitous internet access, then you may also be appalled at the ways and extents to which we gleefully tear each other down on a regular basis. It seems like every other hour there is someone new upon which the entire world’s vitriol is being directed. Sometimes we don’t feel too bad for the person because we truly believe they deserve it, for their actions are/were criminal and yet the law was not able to fairly punish them. Be it Bill Cosby or the Stanford rapist, when the law failed the victims, the internet denizens connected and directed their full power and hatred upon these men until their reputations and, probably, lives were ruined forever.
But what happens when someone does something more minor, albeit still offensive, and the internet collectively decides to go after them? Moreover, what’s life like after the internet is finished with them, and moves onto someone new? These are the questions Jon Ronson is interested in answering in his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Along the way we meet some of those shame victims and we see what happens when someone writes a racially charged and insensitive tweet, poses for a picture that is offensive and rude, makes a quiet joke that is sexually suggestive. All these people read like carcasses, the remains of digital hyenas that ravenously dissected and butchered them and then moved on to someone else, like unsatisfied brain-hungry zombies looking for another fix.
The book is highly readable, albeit at times uncomfortable, and there are passages that feel a little gratuitous and over the top. Ronson also seems to identify with some of his subjects and minimize their sins if he likes them. One example of this is Justine Sacco whose tweet was interpreted as racist (rightfully so, I might add):
Sacco states (weeks after the infamous tweet) that she was commenting on white privilege and making fun of white people. Ronson is all too quick to accept her side of the story and never questions her point of view. He feels sorry for her, and each time he mentions her in the book he renders the tweet more and more insignificant. Eventually he decides that she did absolutely nothing wrong, which actually hurts the case he is making in the book. By rendering her tweet inconsequential he makes the point about public shaming moot. The whole point of his book is that people do something shitty and wrong, but the punishment really doesn’t fit the crime and we must examine ourselves as a society. Somewhere along the line he forgets this and begins to apologize and defend those who did wrong and the attention shifts away from his central thesis. The book is highly readable and is an important source to make us think and examine ourselves. Ronson simply loses track of this at times throughout the narrative. I still enjoyed reading it, and am glad that I did. Even though I do not have a Twitter account and I do not participate in online shamings, I do, through the news and other outlets, vicariously observe and therefore play a complicit role in the takedown of people for wrongs we as a society, outside of the limitations of law and morality, operate.