Read the Whole Thing

Jon "Men Who Stare at Goats" Ronson has a new book coming out, and has been promoting it with excerpts in major newspapers, most notably the New York Times Magazine and the Guardian. In these, he tracks down people whose lives were wrecked by massive public shaming campaigns over idiotic things they wrote on social media, and talks to them about what happened, and what they've been doing since.

Ronson's whole career is built around profiling unusual and often unpleasant people in a way that is ultimately sympathetic without endorsing their problematic aspects-- it belatedly occurs to me that my big problem with that Vox thing I wrote about a couple weeks back is that it's third-rate imitation Ronson. It's no surprise, then, that he manages to make the subjects of his profiles seem very sympathetic, and bring out the problematic aspects of what happened to them. Which has some people asking what should be done about this particular social phenomenon.

And it's a tricky question, because there is definitely a case for the calling out of stupid behavior. When people say stupid and thoughtless things, it can be useful to point that out, and make them think. The problem isn't the shaming per se it's the essentially random and disproportionate nature of it. The phenomenon Ronson is writing about is, essentially, what a friend once called the "Eye of Sauron" management style-- most of the time, you can do whatever you want, but once it latches onto you, expect to be flayed alive. Which doesn't necessarily promote genuine thoughtful consideration of the rights and feelings of others.

I don't have a great suggestion for how to thread that particular needle, but one aspect of this whole business does seem to have a relatively simple solution, namely the fact that these things continue well past the moment when the point has been made. Ronson's subjects talk about how, weeks or months after their life-destroying incident, the Lidless Eye would fall on them again, and they got another deluge of scorn for events that they had thought resolved ages ago.

Some of this is the result of actual petty malice on the part of social-media provocateurs, but a lot of it is more innocent. I saw it in action right after I read one of Ronson's excerpts, when I tabbed over to Twitter to find somebody holding forth about the previous week's outrage, followed fifteen minutes later by "Whoops, sorry, that was last week. The offending party has backed down. My bad." The tweeter had been on the road when the scandal in question broke out, ran across the story while catching up on news, and tweeted in outrage before finishing the catch-up and seeing the apology and retraction.

The solution to this is, as I said, relatively simple, and can be cast in the form of an old blogger joke: Read the whole thing. That is, before you vent your outrage-- however justified it may be by the original action-- read all the way to the end of the story. Which may require reading more than one story.

And this goes even for things that aren't old news. Before making a bunch of angry denunciations of whatever, check to make sure that you're actually adding something new. If you've got an a point to make that hasn't been made before, please do that. If you're just the 5,000th person saying "This sucks and the author is a Bad Person," think about whether that's absolutely necessary. And check to see what the original author is saying and doing. If they've apologized and then fled the scene, stop. The point has been made. If they're fighting back like a rabid weasel in a corner, by all means, pile on if that appeals to you.

Of course, like most simple and elegant solutions to problems involving people, this has absolutely no chance of being widely accepted, for a bunch of reasons. But I'll throw it out there anyway, as advice from a glyptodon blogger: before you comment on something that pisses you off, take the time to read the whole thing.

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One problem with the call-out culture of these online kerfluffles is that they tend to alienate even the people who ought to be sympathetic. I can think of more than when time when a person said to me "You know, I'm a [member of disadvantaged group] and generally pretty sensitive about it, but the way they're going after [latest person being flayed on social media] is way over-the-top."