Journalist Jon Ronson has sold many thousand books. He’s also sent many thousand tweets, a good deal of which have set out to shame a person or organisation guilty of some deep social transgression.
As such, he sees Twitter as a bright new dawn of ‘democratised justice’, where the people, when acting together can bring down mighty institutions. At least, he did see it that way. Now, he’s not so sure.
His latest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, is an investigation into what’s behind this renaissance in public shaming.
Why people do it, what happens to those on the receiving end and whether, indeed, it is A Good Thing.
In it, he meets a Texan judge, academics, journalists, porn stars, therapists, participants in psychological experiments, online reputation managers and experts in the Stasi.
He takes in the 18th century use of the pillory or the stocks and philosophical notions of feedback loops and echo chambers. It’s all fascinating stuff.
But where it gets truly terrifying is his interviews with those who have been victims of shame.
People monstered into losing their jobs, their livelihoods and almost their sanity all for a misplaced joke, intellectual misdemeanour or dumb remark made online.
Stupid? Yes. Heinous? Hardly.
Hearing their stories, Ronson – ever willing to question his own assumptions – comes to wonder whether this is less a great new social justice and more a kangaroo court, where ‘shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes’ in which ‘nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be’.
As in his previous books, Ronson’s style is to take us with him wherever the story goes, curiosity his guide.
But unlike best-sellers The Men Who Stare At Goats (new age FBI warfare), The Psychopath Test (the psychology industry) or Them (ideological extremism), Shamed is not a critique of those at the fringes of our society, it’s about us – or at least the very many of us who take to Twitter to heap vitriol on those we feel deserve it.
His conclusions are almost enough to make you stay off the bloody thing. That, in the words of one person quoted: ‘Twitter is no place for a human being.’
Ronson, you feel, doesn’t quite agree but is sure as hell it isn’t quite the Eden he once thought.
Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Picador)
This first appeared in Metro, March 9, 2015