We're all seconds away from a public shaming. As I write this on one monitor, on the other I have Twitter open and I'm just one poorly aimed joke away from ending my career and - thanks to Google - my future, too.
Shame has been part of the human experience since we learned to pick up rocks, but for Jon Ronson, the age of social media and the 24/7/365 conversation it entails has meant that a good old-fashioned public shaming isn't just the penalty for companies, journalists and politicians caught with their Y-fronts adrift, but literally any member of the public who has done something sinful or stupid.
It's not classic Ronson territory – most of the characters here are by most definitions normal members of society. But that is perhaps his point: the rules have changed.
Early on, we meet Justine Sacco, a New York publicist who, at the tail end of 2013 tweeted a joke intended to be read as a satire of Western ignorance — "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get Aids. Just kidding! I'm white!" — hopped on a plane and by the time she had landed had become an internet bête noire. Suffice to say, the "joke" ruined Sacco's life.
Sacco is just one of a cast of characters shamed in different ways. But it's her story — one misjudged moment to 170 followers and boom!, life over — that is the most terrifying. Which helps to explain why it went viral all over again last weekend when Ronson's chapter on her was extracted in The New York Times. She was seen as fair game, given her job in PR, but one suspects that we could all do something just as stupid.
Ronson has a little less sympathy, perhaps, for Jonah Lehrer, the prodigious science writer who was exposed by another journalist for a series of inaccuracies — and outright falsehoods — in his book Imagine. Lehrer's position as a bestseller and a staff writer at The New Yorker, one of the world's most prestigious (and fastidious in its fact-checking) publications, meant that when the extent of his dishonesty was proven the internet public gave him a public shaming commensurate with the trappings his position had given him. Here, Ronson is the first journalist to speak to Lehrer publicly ("What I feel mostly, is radioactive"), and follow the nadir of his downfall — a speech at the Knight Foundation in Miami. There, Lehrer stood in front of a wall of live tweets condemning him: "Jonah Lehrer is a friggin' sociopath."
The rest of the cast are all shamed in slightly different ways. There's a woman who gave the finger at Arlington National Cemetery and was crucified when the image escaped her Facebook page and became public; the This American Life contributor who made up elements of an exposé of Apple; a former New Jersey governor who'd had a gay affair. Ronson is, typically, deft at getting to speak to people who have chosen to shut themselves off.
He also comes to a fairly grim conclusion when looking at a prostitution scandal in Maine in which a Zumba class/prostitution ring was revealed to have kept immaculate records, thus allowing its clients to be prosecuted. One of them told Ronson that when he'd discussed the outcome with other clients, none had experienced a shaming except one, who was a woman. And, of course, Alexis Wright, the prostitute at the centre of the scandal. In fact, it is depressingly common among the women publicly humiliated for their actions that their shaming quickly becomes viciously misogynistic. As Ronson notes in an email to interviewee Max Mosley: "Of all the scandals, being a man in a sex scandal is probably the one to hope for." Mosley agreed.
There are some happy endings in this immensely readable bit of pop sociology. It's certainly possible for an incident like Sacco's eventually to drift from Google's top results, but — mostly — the algorithm doesn't forget. So be careful next time you send that tweet.
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