So You've Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson

Over the last month or so, it's been kind of hard to avoid this book, even before it hit stores. Big excerpts in the New York Times and The Guardian generated a good deal of buzz, and arguments on social media. Unsurprisingly, as one of the main elements of the book is a look at the phenomenon of social-media shaming, so anybody who had participated in or even watched one of these unfold had an opinion.

I've enjoyed Ronson's previous books a great deal, because he brings a real empathy to all the interviews and profiles he does. Even when he's profiling really problematic people, like some of the wack jobs he interviewed all the way back in Them, he presents them in a way that's sympathetic without excusing their flaws.

Like the previous books, this is a set of profiles of people who have been on the receiving end of public shaming, in one way or another-- Justine Sacco, whose job-destroying tweet is described in the Times excerpt; Lindsey Stone, who had a joke Facebook photo blow up; Jonah Lehrer, whose attempted apology speech was accompanied by a live Twitter feed of people ripping on him. These also include a few folks who came through remarkably unscathed-- Max Mosely, whose sex scandal fizzled, and a preacher caught in a prostitution scandal in New Hampshire, who lost his job but was surprised to find that his friends and neighbors were more sympathetic than judgemental.

The Sacco and Stone excerpts give you a pretty good idea how this goes-- Ronson's treatment of his subjects is very sympathetic, but doesn't really excuse their mistakes. He's also not especially judgmental toward those who take part in these shamings-- he's mostly interested in documenting how these things play out, and how they affect the people involved. On both sides-- he gives about as much space to Michael Moynihan, who exposed Lehrer's fake Bob Dylan quotes (and is clearly still conflicted about that), as he does to Lehrer himself. He's not exonerating or condemning, here, just telling stories.

Which is, as always, a little frustrating, in the usual manner of books that identify a problem but don't propose a solution. Ronson's charming enough as a narrator to mostly get away with that, though. And it's a genuinely difficult problem to suggest solutions for-- as I said back when the excerpts started appearing, the only real fix is for people to think more carefully about what they're doing.

And that's really impractical, because a lot of these things really have very little to do with the person being shamed. They're really about the people doing the shaming, because the act of participating in these things is a way of demonstrating membership in the tribe of Right-Thinking People (whichever of the many subgroups thereof you might be seeking to belong to). Ronson doesn't really get into the performative aspect of the whole thing, which I think is the biggest weakness of the book, because that's the thing that makes this such a tough nut to crack. This is something Freddie de Boer writes about a lot, and stuff like Ian Bogost's piece on "supertweets" is also interesting in this context. For many of the people heaping abuse on Justine Sacco or Lindsey Stone, it's not so much about the specific things Sacco or Stone did but about defining themselves in opposition to what they think Sacco and Stone represent.

(I almost think what we need is a set of Markov chain text-generating robots to establish plausible-seeming social-media profiles for a few months, then drop in something awful in one direction or another. Then everybody can heap shame on the robots, reaping the self-definition benefits thereof, and we can reboot the bots under a new name for the next go-round...)

Along with the promotion for the book, of course, it's been all but impossible to avoid responses to it, many of them critical. Having read a few of those reviews before reading the book, I mostly come away unimpressed with the criticism. A lot of the negative responses seem to me to be founded on misinterpreting stuff that Ronson says, or at least over-interpreting it to the point where Ronson seems to be saying things I doubt he'd agree with. (Not naming or linking here, because I'm not interested in picking fights.)

Anyway, I liked this a good deal; Rosnon's a charming narrator, and he provides excellent and humane illustrations of some things that have really been bugging me about the culture of social media. It doesn't really make me any less ambivalent about social media (I'm constantly about this || close to writing Twitter off completely), but it's a good read and food for thought.

As I said on Twitter, if I were going to be the subject of a magazine profile, I'd like Ronson to do it, because his genuine empathy stands in stark contrast to the withering contempt that is the dominant critical stance these days. Of course, the easiest way to end up with him writing about you (to this point, at least) is for something to be horribly wrong in your life, so I'll be happy to hold off on that honor for a while... If he announces a new project on "Reasonably Well-Adjusted Scientists and Authors," though, I'll sign on in a heartbeat.

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It was a great book, but I felt like it ended pretty abruptly--I had to check to make sure that my audiobook didn't suddenly crash or something. I was rather hoping for a bit more of a wrap-up.

I guess we'll really just have to see what happens with Justine Sacco and Lindsay Stone in the few months following this book.

Yeah, the ending was pretty abrupt. I had the advantage of the page counter in the ebook, though, so I knew it was coming up fast...

It's an excellent book. I could mildly relate to it, and I gifted a copy of it to Scott Aaronson who I am sure can massively relate to it. I think Ronson does let Lehrer off the hook a bit more than what Lehrer deserved (partly because plagiarizing work from others *and* then lying about it is very different from simply tweeting a tasteless joke) but otherwise it's a must read for our times.

By Curious Wavefunction (not verified) on 30 Apr 2015 #permalink