So You've Been Publically Shamed by Jon Ronson

The snowflake never needs to
feel responsible for the avalanche.
I've a lot of time for Jon Ronson. I've followed him on and off through the years, and have fostered an illusory sense of connection going back to a book signing many years ago which, as I'm sure you're all aware, I mentioned previously.  His questioning mind and latent anxiety mix potently and humorously, and his writing plays off between the self-revelatory and the investigative, given he himself features in it so heavily. Nonetheless, the image I have of him is of a nice guy, doing a difficult job and putting himself in the line of fire. As such, this book starts with him realising there had been created a spam-bot (sorry, an infomorph) on Twitter which was, in the terms of it's creators, "repurposing social media data into an infomorphic aesthetic." When he asked for it to be shut, it led to a conversation about Brand Jon Ronson and key questions of identity and positioning in public fora. It also led to a very entertaining YouTube video, linked to below, of the conversation he had with its creators. I'll wait while you have a watch. Might get myself a cup of tea. See you in 12 minutes and 9 seconds, okay?



Lovely. Where was I? Oh yes, the faux-naif (thanks Wikipedia) Ronson, nervous and shrill, is very annoyed by it all until he starts reading the messages under the video. There are calls for various punishments and penances including some that go to extremes, and Ronson gets a little swept up in righteous fury, exalting as the trio of numpties finally do shut the infomorph down. He marvels at the power of social media to get the job done.

But then we head off into the curious cases of famous social media shaming–Jonah Lehrer and his plagiarism, Justine Sacco and her questionable sense of humour–and his assumption that social media has the power to right wrongs is seriously questioned. He goes back to consider public lynchings and pillorying, and asks whether shame, at least on this scale, is a good thing.

He talks to a judge who uses shame to combat recidivism in his state, visits a porn shoot to consider what is for all intents an purposes a shameless industry, tries to work out why some people escape a shaming intact (or as in Max Moseley's case, in even better shape than before) and why others are ruined almost beyond hope. He talks to the members of 4chan, a powerful underground bulletin board where young, disenfranchised web users seek to combat their own entrenched powerlessness by launching campaigns against people they consider to have escaped from justice, and he talks to psychologists whose pioneering approaches to prison reform had some startlingly positive results. He asks why shame is so powerful and what happens to turn good, kind, friendly people, himself included, into braying maniacs once they log-in to their Twitter accounts. 

As always with these things, the journey is what's important. Following him through the adventure of discovery is very entertaining, in parts shocking and in others frankly hilarious. His conclusion is cautionary - that while social media creates a new battleground in the pursuit of civil rights and the combatting of injustice, it also gives a platform for sickness and arbitrary rage to broadcast itself into your life. And he worries that the illness might overwhelm the patient, that in order to avoid the shame of having a contrary opinion, we will all whitewash our online personae until beige homogeny rules–no doubt hyperbole, but it does happen. Ronson invites the reader to draw their own personal conclusions from the evidence he presents, given he himself is conflicted about the value of public shaming, and also to consider standing up for someone in the full harsh beam of public shaming. Who knows, next time it might be you.


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