John / Nonfiction

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

This past baseball season several players, including the Milwaukee Brewers star reliever and Cubs nemesis Josh Hader, had racist and homophobic Tweets they had posted in high school resurface on the internet. The players delivered their apologies to fans, but many of the Tweets left people wondering why these players ever thought these Tweets were okay. Ultimately, the news cycle moved on, in large part because major league baseball players are able to do what only a tiny percentage of the population can do.

This rash of offensive tweets could take up an additional chapter in a future edition of Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, although the people he interviews for his book are generally more sympathetic than Major League Baseball’s hate Tweeters. Public shaming seems to have turned into a new national pastime, and Ronson explores what happens if the news cycle does not move on.

He explores the case of writer Jonah Lehrer. Lehrer, a successful popular science writer, was exposed by another writer for, among other things, fabricating six Bob Dylan quotes and self-plagiarizing. He quickly went from writing for The New Yorker, being a best-selling author, and earning fat checks for public speaking engagements to being persona non-grata. Like the hate-Tweeting baseball players, he made a public apology. However, few found it convincing.

Lehrer’s case seems pretty simple: you cheat, you lie, you get punished. But what about people who simply make a bad joke, sometimes a really bad joke, online? Ronson interviews Hank (not his real name) a normal guy who attended a tech conference that he surely wishes he had skipped. Sitting by his friend Alex and bored, Hank made a juvenile joke about a dongle. The two of them were overheard by another conference attendee, Adria, who took a picture of them and posed it on social media along with a condemnation of their sexist behavior. She later blogged about the two men, which set off a firestorm. Hank ended up losing his job. Once his misfortune started making its way around the internet, Adria started being harassed and eventually lost her job. Adria’s “employer’s website and servers came under a massive…attack, which caused them to crash…A group of attackers said the attacks would stop if Adria was fired.” It only took a few hours for her employer to decide to fire her. It is certainly justifiable for Adria to tell Hank and Alex to grow up and shut up, but did a sophomoric joke need to end up with both the shamed and the shamer being fired?

There is also the challenge of recovering from a public shaming in order for someone to get another job. If your whole shaming debacle comes up on the first page of someone searching for you in Google, it’s hard to move forward. There are companies who can be hired to try to restore your online reputation and at least get all the negative stuff about you off the first page of your Google results. Ronson talks to people in this line of work, too.

The author ends up asking if we end up conforming because of social media. In order not to make a mistake and end up like Hank, do we all become blander? It is a good question, and one that me wonder if the internet is in control of us or if we are in control of it.

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