When I was 15, I wrote something stupid on Facebook. Half an hour later, I remember the heavy feeling of dread as I scrolled through the comments that had been left in reply to the stupid thing. The first ones were quite mild: “this is a bit strong” and “I don’t agree with this.” Then, as the minutes progressed, the outrage spread like fire in a hot forest. By midnight, I’d received thousands of comments and messages. People I’d never met had trawled through my photos and deemed me “ugly” and “disgusting.” People I thought were my closest friends were writing, publicly, that they never wanted to hear from me again. A boy in the year above me wrote that he’d like to “gouge my eyes out with a fork”. I tried to respond, I tried to apologise, I tried to correct them, I tried to stop reading everything. My computer screen froze due to the number of notifications my account was receiving. I wrote an email to the Headmaster at 4am to tell him I was never coming back to school.
So reading Jon Ronson’s latest book, So You’ve Been Publicy Shamed, was something of a revelatory experience for me. It is a book about what happened to me. It is a book about people like me. In the first few chapters, Jon Ronson tells the story of a woman called Justine Sacco. Justine tweeted an “acerbic little joke” while waiting for her flight in Heathrow. She’d meant the joke to sound ironic and hadn’t intended it to be racially offensive. She turned her phone off and boarded her flight to South Africa. When the plane landed, Sacco turned on her phone and discovered the seething storm of hatred that had erupted in response to her joke. People tweeted that she was a “racist,” and that she was “offensive” and “disgusting.” She received rape threats and death threats and was fired immediately from her successful PR job. That evening, she was the worldwide top trend on Twitter.
“What’s happening at the moment,” Ronson tells me, “is that private individuals are constantly being asked to carry the weight of an ideology on their shoulders.” When someone makes a mistake online and falls victim to a public shaming, their identity becomes defined by their mistake.
“A huge narrative takes over your life. All the good things that you do stop mattering.” A public shaming, he says, “is about going for these private individuals who represent systemic failures”. The people involved in Sacco’s shaming appeared not to appreciate the ironic tone of her joke and interpreted it as a racist comment. There is a strong sense, in the midst of a shaming, that the cruelty meted out to the victim is a necessary form of social justice. In writing these vicious words about Justine Sacco, people seemed to feel that they were doing the right thing.
“What happened to Justine wasn’t social justice,” says Ronson. “It was a cathartic alternative to social justice.”
During a shaming like Justine Sacco’s, the comments about her initial mistake are strikingly one-sided. I ask Ronson whether he thinks that this is because so many people genuinely care about the outrageousness of the original comment, or whether it’s because most people are just trying to write the funniest insult. “It’s a broad mix,” he says. “I think some people really care. I think some people, and this is something a friend said to me, are doing a kind of performance piety where they’re showing how much they care but they don’t really. It’s easy, you know, it relieves a boring day.”
Two years have passed since Sacco’s public shaming. I ask Ronson how she is. He says she’s doing well, “but it took a long time. I like the fact that for all these people who shamed her, the fact that she got a new job after a year seemed to be no big deal. I mean, for fuck’s sake, she was in purgatory for over a year for poor phraseology. It’s a psychological trick people play on themselves to make themselves feel less bad.” I tell him that I struggled with my own experience of shaming for a long time. In the years after it happened, I thought about it every single day. Ronson agrees that online shaming is “deeply traumatising.” He says it’s “profoundly psychologically damaging and people have to realise that. You know, people love to think ‘oh, it’s no big deal’ but when you’re being shamed, if you say, ‘Listen, this is really really damaging me. I was up all night worrying about it, I feel depressed and anxious,’ people will say ‘stop whining’.”
I ask Ronson whether, since writing the book, he has altered his own behaviour on Twitter. He says that, when the book came out, “the response was ferocious.” In the end, he tells me, he “had to stop defending the victims because it was just too painful.” Some people on Twitter decided that he was a racist and a white supremacist. In the afterword to the book, he writes that this “mini-shaming” experience had him “up all night worrying in a hotel room in Minneapolis”. It’s a sad irony that this book, which examines the issue of public shaming so extensively and so brilliantly, provoked its own author’s public shaming. We seem to be in the adolescence of our life with social media. We are provocative, tempestuous, impulsive and generally bad-tempered. The stories in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed should serve as our motivation to become kinder, more thoughtful, more responsible citizens of our virtual world.