Thursday, April 16, 2015

So You've Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Jon Ronson looks at what happens to those who have been the victims of shaming campaigns on social media.

When journalist and writer Jon Ronson had his online identity hijacked by a group of academics, it got him thinking about the modern phenomenon of shaming by social media. Ronson tracked down the three academics that had stolen his identity, interviewed them (they turned out to be quite obnoxious) and then uploaded the interview to youtube. He sat back and waited for the comments. Happily, the majority of posters were on his side. Even when some of the posters veered towards saying nasty things about the three academics, Ronson felt gleeful.

A longtime fan of twitter, Jon Ronson had done his fair share of online shaming, self-righteously tweeting his condemnation of the failings of others. But what happens to those who suffer being shamed by millions on social media? So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed tries to answer that question.

In traditional journalistic style, Ronson hunts down a clutch of shaming victims and interviews them, bringing out nuanced and human portraits. This is in stark contrast to the way these people were demonised on the internet. There are many startling examples, from Justine Sacco and her poorly executed joke about AIDS, Africa and white privilege to pop science writer, Jonah Lehrer, busted for inaccurate quoting in one of his books. The power of social media to end jobs, careers and reputation for fairly minor transgressions is extraordinary. Has the internet become Big Brother? Consider the case of Adria Richards who overheard a ‘dongle’ joke murmured behind her at a tech conference (a dongle is a device that plugs into a computer, but Adria claimed the word was used in a sexual way). She turned around, took photos of the two guys making the joke and posted them on twitter. One of the guys lost their job immediately.

The implications of where the technology is leading us in the world of online shaming isn’t explored too deeply in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, but it’s easy to make the inference that you can’t really have a rational conversation with millions of users on social media. Everything is either black or white. Many are now wary of posting anything online for fear of it being misinterpreted. The liberation the internet promised is turning into paranoia. Ronson finishes his book by noting, “We see ourselves as nonconformist, but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age.”

So You've Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson. Published by Picador. ISBN: 9781447229797  RRP: $29.99

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