Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

Publicly ShamedI love Twitter. Seriously. I love it. I’ve been on it since December 2008, and I look at it every day. In fact, you should follow me: @theotherkirsty. I don’t actually tweet everyday, but Twitter is my number one source of what is happening in the world right this second. On several occasions I have heard breaking news before it’s reached the traditional news sites (that inconvenient fact-checking!); I’ve had inane conversations about pizza; I’ve had meaningful discussions about feminism and politics and books; I’ve made professional connections. Most of all, I have just read what others are tweeting, followed some links, watched the issues and ferments of the day ebb and flow. I think Twitter can be brilliant.

But there is a dark side. Take Justine Sacco. She made a really awful, bad-taste joke about flying to Africa and not catching AIDS because she’s white. Definitely one that shouldn’t have got past the internal filter, and absolutely not onto Twitter. Still, she did it, then she got on a plane. Thing is, while she was on the plane, her tweet went massively viral. By the time she landed and switched on her phone, all hell had broken loose. Thousands of people around the world piled onto her, and pretty soon she lost her (PR) job. This was a prime example of public shaming, and is just one of the examples Jon Ronson explores in his funny, shocking, eye-opening book.

Another of the shamed is Jonah Lehrer, a young, super-clever American chap who wrote about neuroscience and creativity and thinking. Big ideas stuff that’s really popular just now, and he was correspondingly feted by all around him. Then a journalist reading some of his work found something a bit off with some quotes about creativity from Bob Dylan. After some thread-tugging it transpired that Lehrer had faked the quotes. Then more inconsistencies in more of his work came to light, and so it all came tumbling down. Later, while making a public apology as part of a speech, Lehrer could see tweets streaming in real time reaction. They’re weren’t complimentary. Is there anymore public a shaming than that?

Of course, public shaming is nothing new, it’s just that technology means we’re doing it in new ways. Hundreds of years ago people were put in the stocks in the town square and had stuff chucked at them. That was eventually phased out, along with other ‘cruel and unusual’ punishments, but yet here we are in the 21st century, seemingly having brought it back of our own volition. It’s not just social media shaming that Ronson tackles. He also meets an American judge who became infamous for his shaming punishments, such as the man who killed two people while drink-driving and instead of being sent to jail, was sentenced to walk up and down the stretch of road where it happened, carrying a sign saying what he’d done. Of course, it made him feel utterly awful and was the most effective reminder he could get of exactly what his actions had resulted in. But he also had strangers come up to him and give him a hug. How did that make him feel? How would it make the family of those who died feel? What does it say about us as people?

Gosh, this book made me think. I’ve seen those Twitterstorms take place, and I’ve seen how easy it is to get swept up in them. Think of Jan Moir, when she made horrible comments about the late Stephen Gately, or when a Daily Mail journalist wrote a dodgy “expose” of a food bank which had actually just done its job. When you agree with the rage, it’s easy to see those Twitterstorms as a justifiable holding to account: the journalist did a shoddy thing, so they deserve the vitriol. It’s not as simple as that, though, is it? What if the facts get twisted, though? The genie’s already out of the bottle, and in these days of Google and Pagerank, the old argument of “tomorrow’s fish and chip paper” no longer holds quite as true. Go ahead and Google Justine Sacco: at least the first three pages of Google results refer to the tweet incident. She did a stupid, stupid thing, but does she deserve it to follow her for the rest of her life? My love affair with Twitter will continue, but reading this book has made me just that bit more wary of the potential its dark underbelly holds.

Jon Ronson: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (London: Picador, 2015)

2 comments on “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

  1. Moira
    August 7, 2015

    Gosh, but that sounds like a salutary read. Having seen – and in one case been on the fringes of twitterstorms and massed public indignation – I steer well clear of them in general … but it would be so, so easy to get swept up in them. And it’s also a reminder of how badly somethng translate on Social Media. What, in a face-to-face-between-friends situation would probably be slightly bad taste, tongue-in-cheek comment can come across as full blown racist/sexist/ageist/whateverist. It’s a mind-bogglingly useful tool but an explosive one too. Great review.

  2. Rhoda Baxter
    August 10, 2015

    This sounds very interesting. I shall have to check it out.
    Another reason why Twitter storms have such a huge effect is that print journalists watch Twitter for breaking news stories. This brings the story to people who don’t use Twitter and magnifies it.
    For example, I doubt Tim Hunt would have been overly bothered by a Twitter trend, but once the thing went mainstream, he felt he had to resign his honorary position (which then got reported as his being sacked).

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