Jon Ronson’s timely book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed describes modern day public shaming on the Internet. As with his previous book, The Psychopath Test, this one is finding a wide audience as he illustrates some of the ramifications of shaming.
Remember Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide and Imagine: how Creativity Works, both of which were runaway nonfiction successes? Lehrer was a media darling until a journalist uncovered many examples of blatant plagiarism in his books which quickly caused Lehrer’s personal and professional worlds to come crashing down. When he subsequently accepted a speaking engagement for which the Knight Foundation paid him $20,000 to issue a public apology, a live Twitter feed at the podium showered him with instant hateful responses from those listening to his speech, including many posts which told him to return the speaking fee immediately. Unprepared for the uproar, he has slowly been trying to regain his credibility as a writer.
Two computer software developers at a conference were outed by an outraged woman sitting in front of them who was so irritated by their sophomoric sexual comments that she snapped their picture and Tweeted their names, picture, and the comments they made. One of the men, with a pregnant wife and 2 young children, was quickly fired from his job. The woman felt vindicated until public opinion turned against her, and she, in turn, was fired and continued to be publicly shamed on the Internet.
One of the saddest examples was Justine Sacco who became one of the most hated women online in 2013. Travelling abroad, she sent several snarky Tweets which were both culturally and racially inappropriate. By the time she landed at her destination in Africa, people were calling for her head, issuing death threats and suggesting she be fired from her job. At the beginning of 2013 there were 30 searches for her name on the Internet, but by the end of the year there were over 1.2 Million searches. Her life was ruined and she was afraid to leave her house.
These few examples are woven into a book which looks into the possible reasons for so much anonymous public shaming. It also covers the history of public shaming and discusses the surprising number of companies that have cropped up to ‘scrub’ peoples’ profiles online.
This should be required reading for all who doubt the Internet’s effect on our lives.