Published by Penguin on March 31st 2015
Genres: Interpersonal Relations, Popular Culture, Psychology, Social Science
2.5 Stars, 3 for the first half and 2 for the second half. Entertaining, but superficial exploration of public shaming in the age of social media. I was expecting fluffy, but this was fluffier than most of the popular social science books I’ve read. It is as much about the author and the process of writing this book, as it is about public shaming. One of my biggest book pet peeves is when an author keeps mentioning the book in the book (also see: [book:Yes Please|20910157]), so that heavily colors my perspective!
A life had been ruined. What was it for: just some social media drama? I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we get old and stop. But with social media, we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people. What rush was overpowering us at times like this? What were we getting out of it?
I was interested in this book because internet shaming sessions always make me so uncomfortable! They are so counterproductive and self-serving. (“We express our opinion that Justine Sacco is a monster. We are instantly congratulated for this—for basically being Rosa Parks. We make the on-the-spot decision to carry on believing it.“) Many times a person’s words are interpreted in the least charitable way so that they can become the latest poster child for everything wrong with the world. Death threats and a persistent pile-on that continues until someone is professionally destroyed seem excessive for many of these conceptual crimes.
We became keenly watchful for transgressions. After a while, it wasn’t just transgressions we were keenly watchful for. It was misspeakings. Fury at the terribleness of other people had started to consume us a lot. And the rage that swirled around seemed increasingly in disproportion to whatever stupid thing some celebrity had said. It felt different to satire or journalism or criticism. It felt like punishment. In fact, it felt weird and empty when there wasn’t anyone to be furious about. The days between shamings felt like days picking at fingernails, treading water.
I was surprised at how many of the cases in the book I recognized. That probably means I should spend less time on the Internet! A few of the cases discussed in this book: (The Sacco and Stone links are articles by Jon Ronson)
• Jonah Lehrer – Pop-science author who got caught plagiarizing and fabricating quotes. He gave a self-serving public apology that didn’t go so well.
• Justine Sacco – Tweeted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” before flying off to South Africa. By the time she landed, she had became infamous and was fired from her PR job.
• Lindsay Stone – The woman photographed flipping the bird and pretending to shout obscenities next to a “Silence and Respect” sign at Arlington National Cemetery. She lost her job as a caretaker for people with learning disabilities.
• Donglegate – Woman (Adria Richards) at professional conference overhears two men joking about “dongles” and tweets their photo to the world. One of the men (Hank) is fired. Woman receives backlash for the public shaming and is the target of violent threats. She is fired from her job after hackers take her employer’s servers hostage.
Since Lehrer is an author, it doesn’t surprise me that his transgressions destroyed him professionally. Stone’s and Sacco’s attempts at humor were disrespectful and offensive, but it probably should have been a learning experience rather than permanent professional destruction. As the situation is presented, I felt the worst for the Donglegate guys because it was a private conversation. Later, I felt awful for the woman who exposed them because she became the target of ongoing, over-the-top vitriol.
There is also a really interesting interview with Texas Congressman Ted Poe, who was known for using public shaming as a punishment when he was a judge. My biases were similar to Ronson’s when I started reading the interview, but by the time I finished reading it I developed a more nuanced perspective. It really gave me something to think about.
“The justice system in the West has a lot of problems,” Poe said, “but at least there are rules. You have basic rights as the accused. You have your day in court. You don’t have any rights when you’re accused on the Internet. And the consequences are worse. It’s worldwide forever.”
The first half the book was really engaging, but halfway through the chapters started drifting away from the central topic. It lost all organization and I began to lose sight of the author’s overall point. We follow along as the author goes to a shame eradication workshop, the filming of a shame porn, and a prison to discuss shame and criminality. I should have been more interested in these parts because these are the sections that aren’t plastered all over the Internet. I was more affected by the stories of the people on both sides of public shaming than I was in the author’s antics. The most interesting chapter in the second half is about reputation management firms, companies that manipulate Google search results. Their goal is to shift the offensive material to the second or third page of the search results because very few people look past the first few links.
“It feels like they want an apology, but it’s a lie.” Mike Daisey and I were sitting in a Brooklyn restaurant. He was a big man and he frequently dabbed the perspiration from his face with a handkerchief that was always within his reach. “It’s a lie because they don’t want an apology,” he said. “An apology is supposed to be a communion—a coming together. For someone to make an apology, someone has to be listening. They listen and you speak and there’s an exchange. That’s why we have a thing about accepting apologies. There’s a power exchange that happens. But they don’t want an apology.” He looked at me. “What they want is my destruction. What they want is for me to die. They will never say this because it’s too histrionic. But they never want to hear from me again for the rest of my life, and while they’re never hearing from me, they have the right to use me as a cultural reference point whenever it services their ends. That’s how it would work out best for them. They would like me to never speak again.” He paused. “I’d never had the opportunity to be the object of hate before. The hard part isn’t the hate. It’s the object.”
The interviews reminded me of the type in entertainment magazines, where the interviewers meet with celebrities at restaurants and every minor action is written as if it is deep insight into the mind. Ronson raises interesting questions and leaves them dangling in the air, with no attempted resolution. In the chapter about a list of prostitution customers that was publicly exposed, it was noted that the men on the list escaped public shaming. However, those same men actually mocked the only woman on the list. It is brought up in a “Hmm, that’s interesting! I wonder why?” type way and then that line of thought was promptly dropped. I would love to read more about how sex/race/etc. affects the intensity of shaming. I also wanted more from Adria Richard’s interview. Every time it would get interesting, he would move on to the next segment. Though in Ronson’s defense, she had a rigid belief system and didn’t see people beyond identity politics. There wasn’t much room for self-analysis.
Ronson conducted a brief interview with some hackers affiliated with 4Chan, but I would have like to read about more about the people doing the shaming. I was really curious how the people who participate in Internet mob justice deal with offensive things in real life. Is the visceral and viscous behavior on the internet a way to act out frustrations that can’t be aired on family and coworkers? How do they view the prison system when it comes to harsh punishments vs. rehabilitation?
My key takeaways from this book:
• While there may be some power element to public shamings, people usually think they are doing something good by participating.
• It is easy to forget that your social media profiles are not part of a closed network. Just like reality TV participants forget the cameras are watching their every move, it is easy for regular people to forget that the eyes of the world are upon them when they are primarily interacting with a select network. Even with perfect privacy settings, an offended follower can easily share private material.
• Schadenfreude – We all have the propensity to enjoy shaming people.
• People are more than their worst mistake.
• Google is forever! There is a the mistaken notion that the targets of shaming continue their life without major repercussions after public attention wanes. The increasing use of Google searches by employers makes that extremely unlikely.
• If you ever become the target of public shaming, don’t engage…or be a man in a consensual sex scandal.
We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside it.
I probably would have gotten as much insight from seeking out articles about public shaming, but this was a quick read. It gave me a nice break from a book I was really struggling with. It reads like a magazine article, so it is perfect if you need something to read in an area with lots of distraction. This book would be most useful for people who have been publicly shamed or those who enjoy participating in public shaming. If you are interested in topics addressed in the book, you might enjoy [book:Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice|23364926]. It is about the US justice system, but it covers the psychology behind a people’s actions when it comes to judgment and punishment.
We were creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland.
Some updates on the cases mentioned above:
• Jonah Lehrer – Has a new book coming out in July, [book:A Book About Love|27274438]. I am sure it will be thoroughly combed through!
• Justine Sacco – An article from the Gawker writer who publicized Sacco’s tweet to a wider audience: Justine Sacco Is Good at Her Job, and How I Came To Peace With Her.
• Lindsay Stone– Reputation management seemed to work for her by the end of the book. Ronson’s book brought it to the forefront again, so her transgression is the top result on Google again.
• Donglegate – PyCon updated their harassment procedure, requesting that people “do not disclose public information about the incident until staff have had sufficient time in which to address the situation.” Hank had an easier time recovering from Donglegate than Adria and he found another job quickly. She is now an independent technology consultant.