By BRUCE DENNILL
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
Jon Ronson has built a significant reputation as a documenter of subculture weirdness; he’s a sort of avant-garde Louis Theroux. He burst into the mainstream when his book The Men Who Stare At Goats, about some of the strangest policies ever dreamed up by the US military and the implications of those ideas, and though that project attracted personalities (in its film version) with the mass appeal of George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey and Ewan McGregor, it still mainly appealed to viewers (and, for the original book, readers) in the more eccentric margins.
This book is aimed squarely at a larger and more accessible market – users of social media, and particularly Twitter. That latter point is perhaps the project’s only major shortfall, in that, while Ronson’s research is impeccable and his perspectives brilliantly expressed, Twitter is not the most popular or influential platform in that arena, so many readers may feel that the warnings in this book, while ominous, do not apply to them.
For his narrative, Ronson takes note of some high-profile shaming incidents – scenarios in which someone does or says something foolish or something that can even just be interpreted as foolish, and is then publicly eviscerated by critics of every stripe and level of education, often because of a simple difference of opinion – and uses dedication and old-fashioned investigative journalism skills to track down and unpack the stories of the individuals involved. It’s incredibly powerful stuff because anyone who does use social media and is perpetually gobsmacked and/or frustrated by the average user’s lack of awareness or intelligence in the way they use the resource can acutely relate to the themes Ronson explores.
There is the weapons-grade stupidity of someone who willfully shares something that could have connotations of prejudice, let alone outright slander. There is the equally problematic entitlement that allows people to aggressively criticise people they don’t know and whose context they have no understanding of. And there is the complex psychology involved in being able to play either of these roles because of the distance provided by an account on a website that at once represents the user and is simultaneously part of a persona that could be considered as only superficially like them.
Most readers will have experienced the shaming phenomenon in some context – perhaps as a youngster at school – and Ronson’s findings and compulsively readable writing style will entertain, but also shock. If this book is an initial wake-up call, it’s a necessary one. Whether you’re on Twitter or not, the changes to the way we interact wrought by social media in particular and by a culture in which screens and software are permanent interfaces in general are a constant concern in the developed world. Ronson’s text reveals a widespread neediness (concentrated by a shared addiction to being connected), that is only assuaged by being heard, even if the ways in which that happen are inappropriate.
You’ll scoff at many of the people Ronson comes across in the course of his investigation, but you’ll recognise yourself in them too – and that’s as compelling as it is uncomfortable. And you will, if you’re sensible, be terrified by the phenomenon at the heart of the book and its potential for harm – to individuals and to communities at all levels, all the way up to first-world superpowers (taking into account the brash world leader who is arguably Twitter’s most infamous current user).
A superb, perception-challenging read.