17 June 2015

So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

I put SO YOU’VE BEEN PUBLICLY SHAMED on my to-be-read list as soon as I heard about it. If memory serves, I read about it in an interview with Jon Ronson, not long after I’d seen one of my favorite authors go through a pretty harrowing public shaming in the Twittersphere.

I remember the feelings of indignation I felt as I witnessed the whole thing, but thankfully I managed to avoid engaging in the whole debacle, as I feel that never really helps things. The Internet is a frightening place and I have to keep my emotional distance from it. It’s a lesson that I learned the hard way, back when I was a teenager.

In SO YOU’VE BEEN PUBLICLY SHAMED, Ronson takes a look at several cases of people who were brought down by a wave of Internet outrage. He starts by examining the ways in which the Internet has been a great equalizer, allowing the collective will to force giant corporations to change their courses, bringing power to the powerless to talk about their plights. But the darker side of that coin has been how quickly and effortlessly we can attack each other, and how one call-out can transform into a landslide.

SHAMED was a fast read. It had the intensity of a thriller and the kind of brilliant voice you expect in a YA novel. Case in point, a line from a section in which Ronson is examining records from the 1700s (if memory serves) regarding public shaming:

They really should have spent more time on paragraph breaks back then and less time on the letter f.

I laughed out loud!

SHAMED makes the case that all of us have the potential to become Internet monsters, to get swept up in collective outrage and end up being actual destroyers of lives. Several of the people who were publicly shamed have yet to really recover from the desolation that followed: lost jobs, friendlessness, abject fear. And while some of the people profiled had committed actual offenses—plagiarism, lying, etc.—some did nothing more than exercise poor humor.

We have all told bad jokes before. But in the age of Twitter, your bad joke can become your worst nightmare if it offends people.

SHAMED made me take a hard look at how I interact with the Internet, at how quick I am to agree or disagree with something I read, especially if it’s calling out someone else. It’s reminded me to be compassionate and withhold judgment until the facts are out. And it’s reminded me to be careful of what I say, too.

For now, at least, Google is forever. Unless you live in Europe.