I am only three quarters of the way through Jon Ronson's new book, So You've Been Publically Shamed, so when he begins reading an excerpt from the ;Afterword', written for the paperback, I'm genuinely surprised. Whilst Ronson is no polemicist, allowing his readers to come to their own conclusions as much as he himself appears to through the course of the book – like any narrator who participates in his own story, Ronson is on 'a journey' – the book is pretty clear in identifying online shamings as the digital equivalent of placing the guilty either in the stocks or pillory, a practice generally abolished in the middle of the 19th century. Apparently, however, for certain elements of Twitter, his conclusions are controversial, at least when represented in one New York Times article. Ronson was attacked on Twitter because of it.
Then again, perhaps it's inevitably that the Twitterati should defend itself. For Ronson paints an alarming picture of the way a social network that initially began as a means of articulating individual voices, a way of asserting compassion and social justice in response to mainstream media, has since enabled a frightening mob mentality whereby lives are ruined through inadvisable tweets or photographs. From the PR exec whose tweet was misconstrued as racist to the care worker whose 'funny' photo was interpreted as anti-American, Ronson shows how Twitter and Facebook foster the tendency within us all to label people as being wrong. And because the digital world feels somehow anonymously distant, we can be as vile and abusive in doing so as we like.
As in his other books, Ronson writes with a mix of humour and sincerity, and he exhibits both in person as well. What the book does well, though perhaps it's only touched on briefly here, is examine how everyone has a concept of shame, but it's not necessarily inevitable that we succumb to it. The fear of shame is often more potent than the shame itself, whilst some people's idea of shame is actually out of kilter with the consensus. Max Mosely was exposed by the tabloid press as a fan of German-themed sadomasochist and the world shrugged whereas some men revealed by the Ashley Madison exposé committed suicide in anticipation of what was to come.
The power of social media to either enrich or undermine the way we communicate with each other is one of the most important questions of this era. Arguably Facebook and Twitter shorten our attention span whilst enabling the voices of the powerless, whether their intentions are harmful or not. So You've Been Publically Shamed forces you to take a step back from the immediate, timeless scroll of your Twitter feed to look at a cultural phenomenon that gives free rein to disinformation and bullying, and that casts as shameful any voices which aren't willing to condemn before all the facts are known. Ronson made the interesting point that even though we now have an EU law which allows people to request their google search results can be erased, in many countries being pronounced as guilty on social media can equate to a life sentence. Once you have been condemned, there is no rehabilitation on social media
This is a fascinating and insightful story, told at times with exasperated compassion. While there are no 140 character answers to the questions it poses, sometimes it's enough for someone to give a different perspective.