Public Shaming

Jon Ronson just might be my new favorite author. I recently finished his book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” and consistently felt like I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough while reading it. It basically deep dives into the world of social media shaming where, for example, one inappropriate tweet gets shown to millions thanks to the ability to retweet, screenshot, etc. It’s hard to know how things go viral but, when they do and when it’s bad, it can have disastrous effects.

Have you ever Googled yourself? I just did and, thanks to a semi-famous casting director with the same name, I barely show up. I checked the image results and a picture of Anne Hathaway actually appears before me and even then you really have to scroll. What if, when you Googled yourself, an embarrassing moment popped up? What would you do? Living in Silicon Valley, the idea of a tweet or post going viral is desired in most cases! It’s what marketers work to do. I recently helped run an event and remembered trying to come up with ways to get our tweets to get more views, favorites, retweets, etc. I wanted people to see. What about when you don’t want people to see something? What would you do if that embarrassing picture from college was the first image result? That’s basically what this book dives into.

“I suppose that when shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be.”  ― Jon Ronson

I recently deleted my Twitter account in large part because I think I need to step back from the power social media has had on me for years. It’s been almost 10 months since I’ve been off of Instagram and Facebook but I finally made the leap into life without Twitter (I never really used it much anyway). The collective power of it and the sense that we can gather knowledge and news from 160 characters is frightening.

“I, personally, no longer take part in the ecstatic public condemnation of people unless they’ve committed a transgression that has an actual victim, and even then not as much as I probably should. I miss the fun a little. But it feels like when I became a vegetarian. I missed the steak, although not as much as I’d anticipated, but I could no longer ignore the slaughterhouse.”  ― Jon Ronson

I have been able to ignore the slaughterhouse and the false sense of knowing one another/the world.

One of the more interesting sides to the book was when the magnifying glass turned to those that, in many ways, caused a person to be publicly shamed as well as those who were publicly shamed. What did it feel like? Why did you do it? Would you do it again? Does public shaming “work”? At one point, Ronson interviews a judge who, rather than giving out normal fines or prison sentences, hands down public shaming like sentences. The difference in this case was that someone actually did something wrong and was being punished. With social media, often things can be taken out of context and condemned without a thought to what might actually have been going on.

“A life had been ruined. What was it for: just some social media drama? I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we get old and stop. But with social media, we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people.”  ― Jon Ronson

The last line is the most powerful in my mind. We are swept up in something that doesn’t actually represent the way we are as people. We condemn people over 160 characters. As an individual, I can see why this is scary and can say “I’d never do that!” but when someone shows me an apparent homophobic tweet I get very upset. It’s almost as if we’ve taken social learning to an entirely new level through social media. We’re now able to condition those around us into silence or into saying things in a way we want. Have you ever noticed how similar the language is between some big companies tweeting, writing posts, etc.? It’s bizarre how similar the language is but it makes sense – we’ve conditioned them to post like that and we reward them for it in page views, likes, retweets, ad dollars, etc.

“We see ourselves as nonconformist, but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age.” ― Jon Ronson

I noticed this first on Instagram mostly because it was so visual. This was right after they started allowing advertisements. I was scrolling through and, by accident, liked a post from McDonalds purely because it was seriously so similar to something a friend would post. Here’s the post:

How many pictures have you seen from friends that look like this? They are doodling… drinking coffee… relaxing… YOLO-ing… eating breakfast… whatever! We’re trying to conform the masses. The result is that the outliers are shamed which only silences those that might speak out.

All of this is to say, it was a damn good book and I’d HIGHLY recommend it. Understanding how something as powerful as social media can affect someone is incredibly important if you want to be a mindful actor within that world.


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