For author Jon Ronson, it all started when someone stole his identity on Twitter and started posting weird, kinky things he never would post. In order to remove the Twitter account, a battle ensued, and so began his two-year journey into the life of shame.
Social media is the battlefield in Ronson’s new book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Ronson is an author and journalist best known for his intelligently comical approach to things like mental health and extremist political sects. He doesn’t just do research; he immerses himself in the cultures he studies, which is exactly what he did to make his newest book so dang terrifying.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed springs off from Ronson’s own Twitter attack to close studies of people whose lives were utterly ruined by social media shaming. Not to say shaming is anything new. Ronson gives us the historical backstory of shaming, and according to his research, “public shaming had once been a process” in the 1800s, back when people were fined, placed in the stocks and even publicly whipped for their crimes.
Then came Twitter, and the horror truly began. Ron writes, “I suppose that when shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be.”
Indeed. Look at cases like Justine Sacco, who made one racist joke about AIDS on Twitter and ruined her life. Or Lindsey Stone, who took one inappropriate but comical photo and became a social outcast who barely left her house for a year.
SheKnows Relationship Expert Laurel House suffered her own bout of internet shaming through her YouTube platform. She said, “At first it was embarrassing. Then it made me question myself. Then it became scary. The comments got pretty bad, from telling me that I was a whore because I talked about dating and sex to threats of sexual assault to threats against my life.”
According to House, Twitter has become a monster. “It’s easy to throw out a nasty, shaming comment without thinking on Twitter. You have a thought, and within moments it is made public to potentially millions.”
Which is exactly what happened to Sacco and Stone: two women who made jokes and lost jobs, friends and their reputations.
So what kind of world is social media shame striving to create? First off, let’s get one thing straight: Ronson does not vilify Twitter. He’s actually a big fan. He believes it can be used for the greater good, but after his two years spent with “the shamed,” he has seen the true capabilities of the site’s evil, as well.
One of his biggest conclusions about social media shaming: “We were creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland.”
Our expert, House, agrees. She said, “We are afraid of judgment, being seen as weak, not fun, boring, unoriginal, too weird, ugly, stupid, unimportant or uninteresting. So instead of being ourselves, we create a facade, a caricature of ourselves. The danger is that many of us become so accustomed to embodying our created other that we forget how to be real.”
Jon Ronson is worried, too. In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, he writes, “We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside it.”
As a social media prima donna, I can see the valid concerns. I have yet to make a complete disaster of my life due to an offbeat comment, but it could easily happen. I mean, thank goodness people can’t hear what’s really going on in my head. But Ronson asks: If we’re too careful with our words online, will we be too careful in life? Will we have anything interesting to say at all, or will we be too afraid of offending someone to speak up?
House believes this is a viable concern. She said, “When you edit yourself too much, you remove what makes you interesting, lovable, relatable and real. You become bland, universal, canned and forgettable. You lose what makes you unique, quirky and you.”