My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I picked up this book after seeing a series of tweets from Jon Ronson, the first a joke that he’d been ignored from the New Year’s Honours List again, I saw the tweet and it was very clearly a self deprecating joke, yet various newspapers, who seem to have whole departments dedicated to trawling Twitter for even the most vaguely dodgy thing, even a minor celebrity might say, to write some sort of shocked expose on, all took the tweets to be some sort of self pitying drunken rant. You could almost suspect that they deliberately misinterpreted the tweet because “author’s drunken rant” is far more ‘interesting’ than “author’s self deprecating joke”. Anyway, in the aftermath of all the drunken rant stories, Ronson tweeted that it least wasn’t as bad as the aftermath after So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed was published because it’s harder when your own tribe attack you than when it’s the Daily Mail. I like Jon Ronson’s stuff and plan to read all of it eventually but So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed had been quite low down on my ‘Jon Ronson to read list’ but those tweets made me curious, so I jumped the book straight to the top of the queue.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed looks at the various Twitter lynch mobs that have occurred this decade, such as the woman on the plane’s ill thought out AIDS joke, another woman’s ill thought out ‘jokey’ photo near a war memorial, a couple of authors who had made up quotes, amongst others. Ronson follows up with what happens to the shamed months later, pointing out that whereas a lot of people doing the attacking assume that their target ‘will get over it’ and ‘everyone will move on and forget about it when the next scandal hits’, in reality it leaves behind depression, job loss, broken marriages and the inability to be forgotten because it will still be there every time someone googles your name.
It also looks at the history of shaming, after all, what happens on Twitter now is only the 21st century equivalent of town square whippings or being put in the stocks and having mouldy veg thrown at you but those public shamings died out, why are they back now? Ronson also looks at the effects of shame, looking at prison population studies which identified that the most violent prisoners could all trace their violent behaviour back to a life experience that they felt ashamed about. Another study Ronson quoted looked at people with murderous fantasies and what caused them, the vast majority of the fantasy holders wanting to do horrible things to their imagined victim because their victim had, at some point, made them feel ashamed. Ronson also looks at the reasons why shamings occur and how those reasons have changed over time.
Ronson argues that Twitter has become a bubble where everyone’s thoughts and expectations mirror everyone else’s or at least the people they follow and that the mob mentality can kick in if anyone digresses and the reaction can be far too extreme. I also particularly like his point that this mob can attack one thing and completely disregard something even worse, for example the dentist that killed Cecil the lion (and yes, that was far worse than an ill thought out joke) invoked the mob but did the same mob seems to care about the massive loss of elephants due to poaching, were they exercising the same vitriol?
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed has certainly made me think and although I think I howled with anger along with everyone else re: Cecil the lion, a lot of the other shamings mentioned in this book are quite American-centric and I either only vaguely remembered them or had not heard of them at all. It will definitely make me think before ever pitching into some Twitter outrage again. In fact, even as I was reading this, a very local ‘shaming’ appeared on my Twitter timeline, the local police had published a ‘letter’ and a photo of someone suspected of burglary. The letter, to the suspected burglar, from the police, was quite funny and I presume that the police (who were trying to find her for questioning) had good evidence that she was the burglar and I guess, publishing the letter and the photo was not that much different from publishing a wanted poster, except a bit funnier but my finger hovered above the retweet button and it hovered because of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Because the letter was funny, it was getting a lot more social media attention than a traditional wanted poster and So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed had reminded me that stuff hangs round on the internet particularly popular stuff and what if the suspect was innocent and even if she wasn’t, what if she did it, went to jail, did her time and ended up completely changing her ways and doing something amazing with her life, even then, that photo and that letter would still be there and, me not clicking retweet was just a small drop in the ocean but I wasn’t going to contribute to that (having said that, I hope the police do find her and I guess they’ve got to use the tools they’ve got).