I reviewed Jon Ronson’s exploration of Twitter tyranny, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, on Goodreads before I started reposting book reviews here as well. I’ve just found Ronson’s TED talk on the playground politics of social media, which should be required viewing for anyone tempted to jump on the bandwagon of aggression. I’ve reposted my review of the book below.
I’ve read anything with Jon Ronson on the cover since I picked up Them at a book sale a few years ago. His exploration of public shaming follows his usual format of poking into the dark corners of history, modern society and the human psyche, from 19th century treatises on crowd behaviour to public shaming as pornography to the very modern phenomenon of assault by social media.
It approaches the subject with Ronson’s characteristic self-deprecating humour, and what appears to be a fairly honest approach to the discussions that led to his conclusions, though of course it’s impossible to know how honestly the interviews have been edited.
For all that, I felt the subject matter of So You’ve Been Publically Shamed didn’t allow for what made his earlier books so fascinating. Ronson’s metier is to bring a degree of empathy and understanding to his portrayals of people who it’s easy to vilify, such as a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in Them and the former leader of a Haitian death squad in The Psychopath Test. Many of the people he introduces us to here are ordinary people who have already been vilified for simple mistakes, usually an ill-advised joke. A straightforward description of what happened is enough to excite sympathy. It doesn’t need Ronson’s characteristic quest down their corkscrew self-justifications.
For all that, it was an entertaining read that threw some light on the modern phenomenon of social media shaming, not least by demonstrating that the phenomenon is much older than the media.