Jon Ronson became interested in the concept of public shaming after he was impersonated on Twitter by a spambot that tweeted inane, random comments under his name. He approached the creators of the bot and asked them to stop, but they would not – so he asked if he could interview them. He posted the resulting interview on YouTube, and the outcry from viewers convinced the bot-creators to deactivate the fake Jon Ronson account. At first, Ronson was vindicated and even elated that people were on his side, but as the comments grew more vicious in nature, he grew frightened – what had he started?
And so began his quest to understand the nature of public shaming. He explores the stories of several people who have been shamed either online or in the press (or both). He studies the history of public shaming (whippings, being put in the stocks, etc.). He visits a judge from Texas famed for unusual shame-based punishments. Along the way, he gets interested in the difference between people who are destroyed by their shaming, and people who emerge unscathed – what is the secret to shrugging off shame, and can these people teach us how?
As a recovering Catholic, the concepts of guilt and shame are always intriguing to me, but what made Ronson’s book so compelling was the human element. He presented his shaming victims so sympathetically – and yet he didn’t demonize their shamers, either. His examples show that often the shamers as well as the shamed suffer in these cases, and there is sometimes no clear victim when all is said (or posted) and done.
If you are interested in social media as a cultural phenomenon, this book is worth reading. I’d put Ronson right up there with Mary Roach and Henry Alford for making exhaustive research interesting and entertaining. One lesson you will come away with if you read it: THINK BEFORE YOU POST.