Back in December 2013, a PR consultant stopped before boarding a plane to tweet at her 170 followers. “Going to Africa,” she wrote, “Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding, I’m white!” When Justine Saccro got off the plane 11 hours later, she had no idea that her life had totally changed. Her tweet went viral, as tens of thousands of people expressed their outrage and demanded (basically) her head. She immediately lost her job and served her 15 minutes as the most hated person on the Internet.
People like her make up the meat of Jon Ronson’s recent book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. From Justine to Lindsey Stone (posted a picture on Facebook) to Jonah Lehrer (plagiarized and lied) or two tech guys (cracked inappropriate jokes at a conference) the internet reacted to their errors with torches and pitchforks. And what’s more-we feel virtuous for doing it, for fighting the good fight of moral decency. It feels good to be part of a chaotic crowd eager to punish someone. We haven’t matured since the days of the stockade and scarlet letters-it’s just virtual now.
Ronson’s of two minds for this shaming. He’s sympathetic to people like Justine and Lindsey, who were just making jokes that people took out of context (although he bizarrely stops to add that while he made a joke similar to Justine’s once, his was funnier). After all, who doesn’t make a stupid joke without thinking it through every once in a while? But Ronson also sides with the internet mob, becoming almost giddy while taking down two bot developers who had their own Jon Ronson Twitter account.
There’s two things to take away from this book. First of all-people are nicer to each other in the “real world.” Reddit’s biggest trolls wouldn’t say this stuff to someone’s face. The other thing is to survive on the internet is to be bland. Ronson met with a company who will rehabilitate someone’s public image on Google by posting bland blog posts about the subject (Lindsey Stone was one of their clients. Although she was happy her internet shaming was pushed back to the second page of Google results, she thought the blog posts “by her” about liking uncontroversial things like Disney, puppies and ice cream were a little weird).
While I enjoyed this book, I wish Ronson had done more with it. Obviously, it’s his book, but it was frustrating to see him come so close to making an interesting point about say, how the internet treats women compared to men, and then just whiz by it. Out of the 69 people arrested and publicly identified in a prostitution bust in Maine, it was the lone female client who was treated poorly in town. When Adria Richards tweeted about some sexist comments men made near her at a conference (and notice that they are still allowed to be anonymous) both she and one of the men lost their jobs. He got a new job quickly. She’s still unemployed and had to move out of her house thanks to the death and rape threats. Frustratingly, Ronson didn’t seem to believe how bad her situation was, or that what the guys were saying in the first place was that big a deal (and maybe it wasn’t. But she thought it was and she’s the one getting death threats.). Internet shamers get a hard-on hating women, especially when it comes to gender issues, something Ronson semi-notes, but doesn’t dig into. Look no further than the women who are still embroiled in Gamer Gate bullshit, who still receive death threats for saying that maybe video games could be more inclusive.
I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I’ve enjoyed some of Ronson’s other work. He went off on some weird tangents and there wasn’t a clear point to the book besides “look at this crazy stuff!” But it was well written and brought up some interesting points about just how much the internet world shapes the “real world.” If I could give you one takeaway from this book it would just be this: Think before you tweet. Or be prepared to sit in the shame corner.