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Internet Book Club: So You've Been Publicly Shamed
How do we move past shame?
I’m on vacation this week, cruising with my family. So in lieu of a normal midweek post, I’m sharing a book review from one of the books I’m reading while on vacation about the social internet. Back next week!
Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is an exploration of the way the social internet weaponizes public shame. The book begins with a small scale instance of online shaming from Ronson’s own life - a few people created a fake Jon Ronson Twitter account, annoyed Ronson with it, and were then forced to apologize and take it down after a minor wave of criticism. From there, we follow Ronson’s journey into the idea of shame, how the social web weaponizes shame, and the people it impacts.
The book focuses on a number of instances of public shaming. It includes powerful and well-known subjects of shaming as well as non-public figures suddenly thrust into the spotlight. Subjects include:
Justine Sacco, of “AIDS tweet” infamy
Jonah Lehrer, exposed for plagiarism
Max Mosley, whose sexual kinks were shamed
Adria Richards and ‘Hank’, the subjects of donglegate
Mike Daisey, who fabricated stories about his experiences in China
Lindsey Stone, who disrespected a cemetery
What the book does well
First things first: This is a very good book. It was one of the first (if not the first) to catalogue the internet’s tendency to engage in mass scale shaming, and to analyze the profound impacts that has on both individuals and society. It’s important solely for that reason.
It’s also very well written. It’s well paced and Ronson’s prose is naturally very readable. You feel as though you’re getting a lot of information, but not like you’re having to strain to keep up.
Ronson approaches his subjects like a reporter. The typical subject is given a thorough examination - background, context, interviews with all subjects involved, postmortem analysis, etc. Who was this person before the shaming started? What in their background could have led them to this moment? Why were they shamed? Who did the shaming - were there important central characters on the other side of the controversy? How do those being shamed interpret the episode? What was the fallout from their shaming? How have they coped in the months or years after the fact? Ronson’s ability to get the deep-dive history of these shaming incidents makes for engrossing reading.
One of Ronson’s strengths is his genuine empathy. He really wants to understand the phenomenon and the people involved. He’s exploring a number of questions - Why are some people are ruined by shaming and some are not? How do those doing the shaming feel about it, or justify their behavior? What implications does this have for how we communicate in public? How does this intersect with political and social topics like race, class, and gender?
Ronson really hammers home the devastating impact that shaming (or as we would call it today, cancelling) can have. People lose their jobs. They lose friends and connections. They become pariahs. They get death threats, rape threats and an avalanche of hatred. Several of the subjects involved develop deep depression, anxiety, and more. Behind every instance of internet outrage is an actual person with hopes, dreams, feelings, insecurities, etc. Lindsey Stone’s life was built around helping disabled people before she became flicks-off-veteran-cemetery girl. Mike Daisey considered suicide after being exposed for exaggerations and lies in his story telling. The core strength of the book is in these explorations of the subjects themselves.
Ronson also does a great job of exploring the shamer dynamic as well. He interviews the man who exposed Jonah Lehrer’s plagiarism, the woman who started donglegate, a 4channer and more. Some of them are thoughtful and very sorry about what happened to the shaming victims. Some of them are unrepentant and basically say ‘Good’ when Ronson tells them how shaming has destroyed people’s lives. To me exploring these shamers is just as fascinating as exploring the shamees.
Where the book falls short
The book’s main flaw, if it can be called a flaw, is lack of a grand theory or firm conclusions. Ronson does quite well in asking a number of important questions and meditating on them, but never quite connects those meditations into convictions about what’s really happening. The book doesn’t really answer the questions it poses - it’s more of a series of musings, of disconnected thoughts that never quite make a coherent whole. Ronson is very good at making you think, but not as good at connecting all of those thoughts. This is perhaps a little unfair - not every book needs a Grand Unified Theory of whatever thing the book is about. But it does feel like So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed shines more in its detailed reporting than it does in its theorizing.
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One other nitpick - the book is also prone to wandering a bit. There are chapters on how shame intersects with porn/kink, some sort of radical anti-shame therapy, and SEO gurus who promise to wipe your history from search engines. These chapters are somewhat interesting, but they don’t quite fit. Some of them smack a little bit of gonzo-for-the-sake-of-gonzo journalism (look at me, I went to a porn shoot and a nutty therapy where people yell!). And they certainly aren’t as engrossing as the chapters about the subjects of shaming.
Overall the book is still very good, but there are a lot of areas left to explore. I would identify the book’s central question (if it has one) as this: Why are some people destroyed by public shamings but others are not? Some of the interview subjects actually come out of the shamings pretty great, holding their heads high and still in good regard in society. Why is that?
Ronson lands near an answer, even if he never fully explores it - narrative. I think this answer is right.
The Power of Narrative
The central difference between those who are destroyed by their shaming and those who thrive in spite of it is having the power to set their own narrative. In Ronson-esque fashion, the book muses on this idea only briefly before moving on. But I find it incredibly important, and want to spend some time fleshing it out.
Max Mosley was the very famous head of the FIA, the governing body for Formula One racing. Importantly to the story, he was also the child of prominent British fascist politicians and Nazi sympathizers. He was publicly shamed when details of his sexual kinks were revealed in the tabloid press, and he was accused of having ‘Nazi orgies’. One can imagine this ruining a public figure’s life, but Max did something almost no other subject in the book did - he fought back.
Max refused to resign any positions, refused to apologize, and instead attacked the tabloids who had invaded his privacy. He argued that the uniforms were German military, but that specifically there was no Nazi imagery at any time. He said that a person’s private sexual kinks were their own business, and that he refused to be shamed for them. He even sued the tabloids for defamation and won - the publications had made claims of Nazi and concentration camp imagery that weren’t actually there.
One of the central things that happens in an episode of shaming is that the narrative of a person’s life is upended. Justine Sacco was an upstanding citizen with a rising PR career… until she simply became the AIDS tweet lady. Jonah Lehrer was a wunderkind writer with grand ambitions… until he became the plagiarism guy. Lindsey Stone was a small town girl who loved working with disabled people… until she became the disrespects-our-dead-troops girl. These folks have a mental model of who they are, and it impacts how they see themselves and how the world sees them. In an instant, that model is discarded and the entire world imposes a new narrative about who they are. A narrative in which they’re a scumbag defined by only one moment or one feature of their life.
Sometimes that can be appropriate! A person who lives a normal life and then one day murders someone should indeed have their identity and narrative completely flipped such that they are no longer ‘normal soccer dad’ and are now ‘murderer’. But that sort of radical redefinition probably isn’t appropriate in all cases, and certainly not in cases where someone’s only sin is making a tasteless joke on the internet. As my grandmother used to say, “There but for the grace of god go I” - and probably you as well. Who among us hasn’t made a joke we wish we could take back?
What Mosley did that was so important was fighting for control of his own narrative. Previously he was ‘former racecar driver and current FIA president’. He was threatened with being defined as ‘fascist Nazi orgy freak’. He fought back by defining himself as a victim - unfairly shamed for private kinks, victim of the evil tabloid press, libeled with untrue claims. He actively fought for his own narrative, and he won. Many people who heard about his court case against the tabloids were sympathetic.
Crucially, he didn’t need to win everyone. There were still some people who thought of him as the Nazi Orgy Freak guy. But if you win just some of the people, that’s usually enough. Democrats don’t care that Republicans hate them and Republicans don’t care that Democrats hate them, because they’re accepted within their own groups. If you fight for your own narrative you can carve out a group of people who thinks you did nothing wrong, or that you’re being treated unfairly by the mob, etc. That group can sustain you with a positive narrative about your life, a narrative where you’re not the one note villain that the public shaming would make you.
Assorted Final Thoughts
I’d highly recommend So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed for anyone interested in the dynamics of social shaming or how the social internet works. It’s a well-written, strong book. It was ahead of its time and captures a number of valuable insights.
With that said, I’d also love to see an updated version for the current day. There are a few ideas the book missed or was too early to capture that are much clearer in our current social media age.
You can only be shamed by your own people. Fundamentally, Ben Shapiro does not care what left-of-center Twitter thinks of him. He’d be cancelled five times a day by that crowd if he could be. But the only people who can cancel or shame a conservative commentator are other conservatives. Until he does something to piss them off, he’s fine and will continue to be a prominent media voice and make gobs of money. The book’s examples of shaming are almost all universal, but I’d love to read something that explores this dynamic of in-group-specific shaming.
Bad actors have weaponized predictable shame-cascades. These days, outraged reactions to some topics are incredibly predictable. There are certain subjects that if you talk about them in a certain way, a mob will come after you. This leads enterprising culture warriors to poke the mob with a stick, elicit the predictable reaction, and then run back to the other mob that dislikes the main mob to show how they’re being victimized. This is especially true in social justice politics. It’s depressingly easy to become an iconoclast in the Woke Wars - simply outrage the other side to generate attention and sympathy from your own side.
The mob is no longer as chaotic - it’s often specifically organized now. As we’ve covered here before, in today’s social web there are dedicated groups of haters with a social identity around hating certain people or ideas. Ronson’s vision of the online mob is formless, chaotic, pure id. But these days people who hate a specific celebrity, a specific cultural feature, or a specific politics are organized. They have Discords, group texts, subreddits. They have tight social networks where they gossip and discuss and socialize and plan their next attacks and strategies for shaming. An updated version of the book would need to account for these ‘shaming networks’ to make sense of the phenomenon today.
If you’re interested in further book reviews like this let me know! Especially if you have suggestions for books covering the internet, social media, and how people live and act in these systems. Thanks for reading, and here’s a fun image of an angry mob I found.