Shame in the Age of Social Media: Jon Ronson Investigates

Book review: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson (Amazon / Book Depository)

It seemed to me that everybody involved in the Hank and Adria story thought they were doing something good. But really they only revealed that our imagination is so limited, our arsenal of potential responses so narrow, the only thing anyone can think to do with an inappropriate shamer like Adria is punish her with a shaming. All of the shamers had themselves come from a place of shame and it really felt parochial and self-defeating to just instinctively slap shame onto shame like a clumsy builder covering cracks.

As I read my way through journalist Jon Ronson‘s books last year, I avoided this one, despite its being his most recent and quite popular. The stories of people who experience excruciatingly humiliating public shamings make me squirm, even when it’s for something they ostensibly “deserve” – some egregious offense, or a deception that’s been brought to light, like author Jonah Lehrer’s plagiarism.

This modern phenomenon of the social media shame pile-on seems such a painful, emotionally scarring experience, despite offenders having some objectively awful culpability. And that secondhand anxiety is a perfectly normal reaction, Ronson assures. And turns out, there’s significant historical, sociological precedence – public shamings are nothing new. He explores why we might feel that way, including that everyone has some “secret” – usually unimportant to anyone but ourselves – that we worry will be revealed, triggering a public shaming like we’ve witnessed others endure.

…We all have ticking away within us something we fear will badly harm our reputation if it got out – some ‘I’m glad I’m not that’ … Maybe our secret is actually nothing horrendous. Maybe nobody would even consider it a big deal if it was exposed. But we can’t take that risk. So we keep it buried.

This seems a good time to discuss this book, as Ronson’s recently released podcast, The Last Days of Augustcovers another story purportedly connected to a public shaming/Twitter fiasco – that of porn actress August Ames, where bullying allegedly led, or significantly contributed to, her suicide. It’s a worthwhile listen. Ronson uncovers, as he’s apt at doing, that all is not what it seems in the proposed narrative of Ames’s story – that is, that Twitter cyberbullying beat a straight path to her suicide. (Also worth mentioning, as Ronson explicitly does – it’s not a true crime/murder mystery. It just shows that stories are far more complex than their reductions, and his psychological research here bears that out.)

Shamed is structured similarly to Ronson’s others – he starts with a question or focal point concept and from there, lets the story develop by following its natural progression, with curiosity leading the way. He seeks out experts, research, and people who have experienced the scenarios he’s detailing. I love his style, because in following his journalistic thought process, his books read so unpredictably. Intriguing people with fascinatingly bizarre stories are never in short supply when he’s on the case.

As a running theme, the psychology of group anonymity provided by social media platforms was a primary and deeply fascinating element.

It didn’t seem to be crossing any of our minds to wonder whether whichever person we had just shamed was OK or in ruins. I suppose that when shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be. The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche.

His big case studies are Lehrer (the aforementioned plagiarizing author) and Justine Sacco of the infamous going to Africa/AIDS tweet. He returns to them repeatedly to give examples of behavior (their own and the public who lined up to shame them) and aftereffects as his research progresses.

And he covers stories like that of “Hank”, who made a joke at a tech conference that another attendee, Adria Richards, took offense with. She posted his photo and a blog explaining why she felt threatened by the (lamely) sexual comment in a male-dominated atmosphere. Both ultimately lost their jobs. This struck me as one of the trickiest stories here, because it involved repeated shamings and ones in response, a shaming domino effect if you will, that no one seems to know how to properly deal with.

He covers people who have experienced the extremes as a result of public exposure of their private lives: figures in England who have either bounced back from newspaper exposes of sexual escapades, like Max Mosley; or those who have tragically taken their own lives after journalists published dumb, sensationalized articles about consensual sexual behavior.

Ronson’s underlying questions are primarily: What causes us to feel and react to shame as we do? Why do people have such different reactions and outcomes to seemingly similar experiences of shaming? What is the motivation driving those who initiate or join in? What are the lasting societal and psychological aftereffects that we’re manipulating with these public displays of shame?

Some stories still felt iffy, as it’s clear that not all among the shamed have fully accepted responsibility for their actions (Lehrer), or when it feels a bit like Ronson’s sympathy for certain figures is overextended (Sacco). The Hank/Adria mess is a particularly knotty one; as much as Ronson tries to untangle and make sense of it, it still reveals some deeply ugly sides of human nature.

I did have some moments of high anxiousness reading certain sections. But it’s more rewarding than upsetting overall. Not only because I love Ronson’s wry, smart writing and impressively far-reaching investigative techniques, but because his examinations showed more positives than negatives in human nature.

It was the desire to do something good that had propelled me on. Which was definitely a better thing to be propelled on by than group madness. But my desire had taken a lot of scalps – I’d torn apart a LOT of people I couldn’t now remember – which made me suspect that it was coming from some very weird dark well, some place I really didn’t want to think about. Which was why I had to think about it.

The basic principle is that we need to be kinder to each other and consider what’s really happening in some cases, where the tendency is to withdraw satisfied that social justice has been done after someone’s reputation is irreparably in tatters. Some of the offenses are extremely insensitive, ill-thought out jokes (Sacco’s, or the girl giving the finger at Arlington Cemetery) but they were only that – terrible jokes from people who weren’t thinking, without malicious intent. Yet their lives, particularly thanks to Google’s cache, have to some degree now been permanently defined by those momentary actions.

Their public shaming had been like the button that restores factory settings. Something was out of kilter. The community rallied. The balance was redressed.

Or, most affecting, those cases of people who took their own lives after journalists chose, sometimes knowing a subject’s desperation, to publish stories about something as innocuous as swingers. What’s the point of it?

Ronson, as always, is a careful, considerate storyteller, willing to confront his own opinions and biases in favor of finding the bigger truth. He also has that remarkable ability many journalists lack, to include himself and his experience as examples during his reporting without making it all about him. He counts himself among those who have shamed in the name of social justice online and in print – identifying calling out companies and public figures who have done wrong and are no longer allowed to quietly get away with it thanks to social media, and tries to determine what it all has meant to him.

The psychological insights from a pre-social media time are especially meaningful, but at the heart of it is just that simple message: be kind and considerate, we’ve all got some stuff.

We all carry around with us the flotsam and jetsam of perceived humiliations that actually mean nothing. We are a mass of vulnerabilities, and who knows what will trigger them?

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
by Jon Ronson
published 2015

Amazon / Book Depository

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37 thoughts on “Shame in the Age of Social Media: Jon Ronson Investigates

  1. My stomach knotted just reading the topic and book title. It’s a timely subject that I don’t see being discussed with any real depth or seriousness. Thanks for a thoughtful review and I hope this book has a chance of stimulating a path to some real change.

    For the life of me, I don’t understand how personal opinions got to be elevated to such an authoritative status…from people who don’t even know or have a relationship with the subject! Surely there’s some resolution before too many lives get destroyed.

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    1. I know what you mean- I LOVE his books and read them all as fast I could but hesitated mightily on this one because I thought it would stress me out so much. It’s much more beneficial than painful, I promise. He gives this topic the treatment it deserves and that it’s not really getting elsewhere, as you point out. It’s such a glass houses situation…there’s this groupthink of piling on anonymously and shaming people for bad behavior (some of which is nearly benign), meanwhile we’ve all done or said things that hopefully will stay relegated to memory, even if they’re just dumbly embarrassing. Anyone can imagine how it would feel, but people do it anyway. He’s a well-regarded journalist and it’s been a few years since this came out, I’m not sure exactly what the effect has been, but he just did the podcast looking at how another cyberbullying incident may have contributed to a suicide. Of course, it’s much more complex than a single incident but it underscores the idea here of how we’re all flawed and vulnerable and this public shaming does more harm than good. Unfortunately, there’s so much historical precedent for treating each other this way. Sigh.

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  2. This looks like a very complicated and nuanced read and the review feels so thorough that I feel like I’ve skimmed though it myself 😀
    It’s a pretty scary situation and not going to go away any time soon for sure!

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    1. I know, that’s what’s so sad, this behavior just keeps happening!! What I found really interesting in the book was the sociological evidence he found for historical precedent in public shamings. We never learn 😞 sometimes I feel like I’m too wordy but I’m glad I could give you a good impression of it! It’s a fantastic book.

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      1. I am guessing the power of the shame is greater than a few of the other emotions 😐 when it comes to feeling self worth, making it a powerful weapon
        And everyone tries to find the right words to convey their thoughts…I really enjoy your reviews because of their elaborate analysis!😁

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  3. This was a terrific read. I’ve not yet read anything else by Ronson but I’d like to. Which was your favorite? Also, this book is partly why I only tweet (or retweet) innocuous things. Twitter can be scary, but I can’t let go of it entirely because I feel like it’s the most up to date source for what’s going on.

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    1. Wasn’t it terrific? Honestly, I’ve loved everything I’ve read of his. He’s such a compelling and sensitive storyteller that I think you can’t really go wrong with him. Lost at Sea might be my favorite, it’s a collection of his longform journalism over the years. Normally in those collections there’ll be a few pieces I skip or skim but there was only one I didn’t much care for, the rest were excellent. The title essay is about the phenomenon of people who have disappeared off of cruise ships. He just finds such interesting stories to follow, and even since I’ve read it I’ll see something or a person in the news and remember I read something about it in that book. But The Psychopath Test is also great, and I loved Them…it’s older but eerily relevant, especially as some of the figures he covers are still actively influencing politics and discourse today, nutty as they may be (namely Alex Jones and David Icke).

      And I’m with you on Twitter…I had an account way back around when it first started but didn’t stick with it long at all… now it’s just scary and intimidating, so many things I read there referenced from articles or the like have bullying or unnecessarily caustic comments!! But I still check various journalistic and political accounts, because like you said, it’s usually the most up to date. Such a weird environment there!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that’s a good side effect of reading it, to think more carefully about what we say and share. If anything can come from these incidents at least there’s that. A little caution never hurts, especially when it really is so easy for something like this to happen. I’m glad you enjoyed reading it too!

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  4. The thought of being publicly shames is terrifying. What an interesting topic to read about, I think I might give this one a go. It actually ties in quite nicely with a module I’m doing at uni, we’re talking about the power of shame and the role it plays in peoples moral code and why people show their ‘representative’ in public but save the real them for home or when they’re around close friends/family.

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    1. That sounds like such an incredible topic to study! It is really interesting to consider shame as a means of self-control, in a way. So instead of “I shouldn’t do/say that because it’s morally wrong”, – “I’m not going to do it because people will shame me for it”. And that gets special consideration nowadays when you can be put on blast for bad behavior. You should definitely give it a try, his writing and style are so much fun even dealing with a cringey topic like this. I’d be interested to hear what you think of it having studied some similar ideas.

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  5. It always seems to me that the one’s doing the shaming have the emotional development of a toddler. Still once Twitter/Google/YouTube and the like get done with censoring opinions contrary to their own, we won’t need to worry about such things!

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  6. With social media nowadays it’s incredibly easy for people to become sheep and follow the crowd when they jump on a shaming. I haven’t read this book yet but I want to read all the non-fiction so if I see it come in then I will no doubt keep it.

    Maybe we subconsciously think if we jump on the bandwagon to shame then we might divert the attention away from ourselves, and thus reducing the risk of it happening to us?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s absolutely a possibility, I think there has to be some guilt inherent in that aggression towards others. He has a great line related to the point you make, about how the snowflake never has to feel responsible for the avalanche. Definitely try this one or any of the author’s others, I think he’s such a fantastic nonfiction writer.

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  7. This sounds like a fascinating read, so thank you for such a detailed review. I’ve not read Jonson yet, but am a big fan of well-written long-long journalism so may look at that title you mention called “Lost at Sea”. Sounds right up my alley! Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad it was helpful for you! I love good long-read journalism too, and his is really something special. I can’t recommend him enough, there’s something so fun about his books but I also end up learning a ton from them.

      Lost at Sea is excellent, definitely give it a try. Here’s my review of it: https://whatsnonfiction.com/2018/03/07/weird-wonderful-observations-on-mysteries-of-scandal-fraud-psychics-and-other-curiosities/

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    1. It’s very timely and he deals with this issue sensitively, especially considering it’s not one usually treated all that sensitively. I recommend him completely, I’ve loved every book I’ve read by him.

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  8. Interesting! This sounds thought provoking. I have ambivalent feelings about call-out culture, having grown up with Twitter/Tumblr. On the one hand it often feels focused on ripping someone to shreds, without addressing the nuances of the situation. On the other pointing out ‘bad’ behavior publicly, if done carefully, can start useful conversations. The author’s idea of the call out as something that typically slaps ‘shame onto shame’ seems apt.

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    1. Exactly, there are always nuances. He does a brilliant job of showing that here, how we tend to fly into quick rages over very little information and ignore bigger pictures or long-term consequences. I agree with you in terms of companies though, I think social media and the threat of being called out has helped in some part in holding them accountable for behavior and practices they easily got away with in the past. If I had Twitter I would have some choice stories to share about American Airlines, for example…but when it’s someone personally and it’s destroying their reputation, causing them to lose their job over what amounted to a bad or stupid joke, it does make me uncomfortable. It’s a tricky part of the culture now, but the book is absolutely thought-provoking. I’d be interested in your thoughts if you read it!

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  9. Your review makes this sound like a much more interesting book than other reviews of it that I have read. However, I think it would be just a bit too cringe-inducing. Why do people do things they can be so ashamed of? Why do other people act so mean?

    best… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

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    1. It is a bit cringe-inducing here and there, but much more helpful overall. It gives insight into the psychology behind it all that feels very worthwhile. Unfortunately, the nasty way people behave at the expense of others is much more deeply ingrained than modern social media behavior even indicates…and I think most of the time people just don’t realize how detrimental certain actions will be. He does emphasize that, that so much is done with the best intentions.

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  10. I also avoided this book because I hate being vicariously embarrassed, but eventually I picked it up because my book club read it. I was surprised to find that I mostly enjoyed it, even though I definitely felt bad for many of the people the author describes. Like you, I really love his wandering style and the fascinating stories it leads to.

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    1. This must’ve been a great one to discuss in a book club setting! He makes it so easy to see situations from multiple angles, that seems like it would lend itself to good discussions. I love how he researches and tells a story, it always ends up feeling so unexpected. Have you listened to his podcasts? I’ve really liked them.

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    1. Thank you so much!! It does have some anxious moments, but it wasn’t at all what I was expecting. And the message was ultimately so much more positive and made me think about being more aware and careful instead of feeling nervous and anxious. Definitely give it a try. He’s just such a fun, witty writer and journalist, I think he can handle even the stickiest topics with sensitivity.

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  11. Social media is a lot more than we think it is. But st the same time, we should really limit what we’re sharing on them.

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  12. Love your review- just finished this book- and love your blog. Am currently obsessed with non-fiction so am checking into your blog regularly. Thank you for the inspiration

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