Jon Ronson, a British writer probably best known for his book-turned-Clooney-film The Men Who Stare at Goats, is an expert at examining human behavior ranging from the weird to the downright disturbed. His latest work, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, seems like the perfect Ronson topic: a book looking at the dumb crap people do on the Internet, followed by the mean crap people so often do in response.
Using several very famous social-media-based public shamings as examples, Ronson sets out to explore the psychology and evolution of mankind’s lust for ruining the lives of others over even the slightest of transgressions. However, while I found the individual examples fascinating, ultimately, this book just didn’t hit the right notes for me. Ronson spends a lot of his time expressing a kind of perpetual shock over the capacity of humans for irrational rage (though I should note here that I think this “perpetual shock” sensation was heightened by the fact I was listening to him read his own words to me in audiobook format; he definitely has a flare for the dramatic as a narrator). What he doesn’t really manage to do is take a goodly-sized step back from his emotional response to really delve into the various forces at work. The ultimate effect of this was, for me, anyway, to feel like I was being relayed a whole bunch of super-juicy gossip, without much in the way of exploration of what was driving each of the relevant parties to act/react the way they were.
The case studies described range from acts of thoughtlessness or carelessness (thoughtless tweet, careless photograph) to acts of outright, intentional deceit (two lying writers). But while I was, for the most part, happily along for the ride, there was one story where Ronson’s reaction made me realize just how much of what was truly going on he was completely missing.
Specifically, I started to notice how oblivious he was to the role gender so clearly plays in these kinds of social media fueled public shamings, as evidenced by his chapter about Adria Richards, a story I had been following with great interest in the media when it first broke in 2013. That year, Richards overheard two guys at a tech conference making inappropriate jokes (about computer “dongles,” admittedly a term ripe for offensive jesting). Upset by their comments, she turned around and snapped a picture of them, which she then posted on social media.
In response to the hue and cry almost instantly evoked by the photo, one of the men was fired; not long after that, so was Adria. The difference? The man was fired for making sex jokes at a professional conference. Richards was fired because her act incurred the wrath of a huge swath of others in the tech community, who then retaliated by hammering her company’s web site until it crashed. Another difference? The man fairly quickly got another job (ironically, at a tech organization that employs no women, he admits to Ronson). Richards, on the other hand, as with the other women profiled in this book (including Justine Sacco of the badly-thought-out tweet and Lindsay Rice of the badly thought-out Facebook photo), was subjected to prolonged, vicious, and violent death and rape threats, and, as of the time her chapter was written, still had not been able to find another job, largely because any potential employer who plopped her name into a Google search very quickly found a mass of hatefulness and degradation and was (understandably) unnerved.
When Adria tried to explain to Ronson that part of what made her take and share the photo was a pervasive concern for her safety at the conference driven by the overall culture of misogyny around her, she cited a line attributed to Margaret Atwood: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them.” Ronson’s response, and this is where I realized just how little he actually understood about any of this, was: “People might consider that an overblown thing to say.”
Ronson seemed to be suggesting, in other words, that it was unreasonable for a woman to feel as though her safety might be in danger at a professional tech conference. Richards was clearly overreacting. It was a sort of, “Hey, lady, let’s not get all hysterical here, now.” Which whatever, sure, fine, man. I mean, it’s not like this, this, this, this, or, for the love of god, THIS has ever happened. Sigh, argh, sigh again. Argh once more.
None of this is to suggest Ronson’s central point isn’t valid (nutshell: we shouldn’t destroy someone’s life when they make a mistake), or to suggest this isn’t a highly readable, very thought-provoking book — all these things are true. While I confess I don’t feel too badly when people call others out on social media for saying things without thinking about their impact on others — this is still all too common in our society, this belief that what you say on social media doesn’t count, shouldn’t matter, can’t harm, and I disagree with anyone who suggests it’s better to let that stuff go by without mention when it happens — it’s obviously outrageous how far those kinds of interactions can, and often do, end up going. Hatefulness, life-ruination, shame, outings, worse — it’s vile and inexcusable. Ronson’s exploration toward the end of the book of the various ways we’re inventing to deal with this issue were fascinating too (examples: the European “Right to be Forgotten” law and PR companies you can hire to help bury negative content deep down in search results, though that kind of thing can certainly backfire too).
Ultimately, however, I felt frustrated Ronson seemed more interested in sharing the gossipy details than he did in truly trying to analyze the harder questions at play here, and, frankly, he just seemed utterly incapable of even recognizing the gender-related ones. Maybe that’s an unfair criticism — can men truly comprehend the things women are still up against in modern society? Maybe they can’t. But what they can do — and should do, I would argue — is at least try (say, by asking a follow-up question instead of merely shutting the conversation down with a response that can only have been intended to make the interviewee doubt her own perceptions).
In the face of all this, it was hard for me not to leave this book wondering how much more powerful it could’ve been in the hands of someone a little more “worldly,” shall we say — time spent on astonishment redirected, instead, to more thoughtful analysis. That said, this is still a very important, very eye-opening book, and well worth a read (or listen) to anyone interested in social media and modern society.
Recommended (with caveats)!