Monday, March 30, 2015


Back in the winter we had the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour, which tensely sat with an increasingly gaunt Edward Snowden as he was opening the can of NSA worms. The writhing, slimy contents announced that there's no such thing as privacy anymore. Suspicions we used to write off as tinfoil hat-style paranoia have pretty much been confirmed: our government is ogling us, collecting our minutia and forming opinions about us based on that. The revelations were the right mix of terrifying and depressing that I needed to just have a little lie down for a while.

And yet, I'm not sure how scared we should be of our governments – or at least that threat is so large that it's vague, difficult to specifically sweat. Digesting Jon Ronson's new book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, I think it's each other that we really have to be more immediately and tangibly weary of. Yes the government is watching us, but we're also watching us, and I'd hazard to say that we're somewhat less responsible and more trigger-happy than our Western government. Collectively, we seem to be crouched in wait online, in our own social crows nest, ready to point out and punish any transgression that appears in our crosshairs. No mistake, from spelling and grammar flubs to unpopular political purviews, shall go unpunished.

Our town squares no longer feature pillories, but we also don't really have town squares anymore either. Social media and comment sections have become the new gathering places, chockablock with soapboxes and stocks. Ronson finds this out first hand when another Jon Ronson, one with his face, starts Tweeting an unflattering, effete parody version of Ronson himself. The author tracked the doppelganger – an "infomorph" – down to  some university kids. After a confrontation, they refused to kill the spambot, but agreed to sit down with the real Ronson for a YouTube interview. In the video, the academics explained that this was all a means of pointing out how identity is complicated in the digital age. The three come out looking absurd, and Ronson feels pretty chuffed with himself – he's caught, cornered, and shamed these academics. The comments on the video are likewise on his side, which he's likewise happy about, until they take on a tone beyond support. "These fucked up academics deserve to die painfully," reads one comment. And it's then that Ronson starts to understand and worry about the public forum he's brought his beef to, the public that he's appealed to.

From there, Ronson sets off into the sometimes brave, sometimes callow new world of public shaming, talking to those who've had their lives dismantled, those who've triggered and participated in this undoing, and those who make a living helping the shamed take back their online identity. He talks with Jonah Lehrer, who was caught fudging Bob Dylan quotes and then subsequently agreed to perform a public apology in front of a live Twitter feed dressing him down in real time. And he spends considerable time with Justine Sacco, the publicist with only 100 Twitter followers who drew the ire of the whole world when she made an awkward joke about AIDS just as she was boarding a plane to Africa. While she was in the air, the Tweet had gone beyond her 100 followers – people who ostensibly knew Justine well enough to know that she was trying and failing to be sarcastic about white privilege – reaching an online world that wanted her head. The whole Internet waited for her to land, an execution pulled off like a surprise party, eager for her to discover that they – we – had judged and juried her before she even knew she'd been caught.

Looking at it that way, we're terrible people, behaved more rashly and callously than Justine might have in her Tweet, as we perceived it. But we ripped her apart on the side of right, we probably all thought.

Ronson also talks to Ted Poe, the former Houston judge who became famous for punishing criminals through wacky public scenarios, or, as one of his critics put it, "using citizens as virtual props in his personal theater of the absurd." Poe's argument is that some people feel too good about themselves, and this pride is a key ingredient in their transgressions. Humiliate them, destroy their confidence, and you cut down on recidivism. Maybe we don't use that much forethought, but the germ of that idea in active every time we dig into someone online.

Putting a comment on the Internet is about as easing as falling off a bike. We share articles or videos or pictures, glance at them – some for longer than other, birthing the Internet abbreviation "tl;dr" (too long; didn't read) – and weigh in. Thanks to accessibility, we find ourselves involved in the ideas and deeds of people we don't know and will never meet. Of course, this boundless interaction is a great way for us to shed light on moral or political or personal issues in a world we don't directly live in but are all a part of. But it's also a great way for us to be bored assholes who forget that the cranky, petty, thoughtless stuff we do and say and share on the Internet registers IRL.

Arguably, there's a healthy element to shame. It's how morals and mores are preserved in communities. It's a way of calibrating. Jonah Lehrer's journalistic malfeasance absolutely should have been brought out into the open and Justine Sacco's joke wasn't very funny. But did the punishments fit the crimes? Was the shaming productive or just destructive? The problem with mass engagement such as our online interaction produces, is that there's little room for nuance.

I'm sure few if any of us would ever wish someone dead in an Internet comment, but everyone takes part in communal, cumulative misunderstanding. Bolstered by a mix of anonymity, ease, and idleness, we get involved without having to get involved. With no skin in the game, our capacity to react and opine is boundless. The momentum of online opinion reminds me a bit of a firing squad in which only one undisclosed gun is loaded – everyone could be the executioner, so no one is. In another way, it's death by a thousand pricks. We have access to, and open ourselves up to, each others lives in a way the NSA couldn't even dream. But we can get away with it because none of us think there's actually a bullet in our gun.

So You've Been Publicly Shamed makes for an always entertaining, finally frightening reminder that you, me, and everyone we know are packing heat.

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