This book tells the salutory stories of people who were publicly shamed – and then pilloried, sacked, disgraced and hounded to severe depression and worse – for posting inappropriate comments and pictures on social media. In most cases the online response was massively disproportionate compared to the original offence. Ronson goes on to discuss public shaming in its historical context, and how people can now massage their online existence to hide previous offences.
‘Shamed’ is based around a series of interviews and follow up investigations. It is an easy, undemanding read, as anyone who has read any of his previous works will expect. Ronson has a bit of a butterfly mind – rather than being linear the narrative jumps around in a way that undermines the clarity of the point Ronson is trying to make, as if he is uncertain as to what that point really is. But there are enough interesting insights along the way to make this a worthwhile read, if not a manifesto for changing the way we behave online. Most of the lessons one might draw from the experiences illustrated are fairly obvious – don’t overshare online, dark or ironic humour doesn’t usually work online when stripped of its context, people sometimes overreact, often quite deliberately, and so on.
Most of the people Ronson interviewed for the book wanted to forget the whole incident and get on with their lives, and in featuring them here he has ironically given their mistakes a whole new lease of life. Why they agreed to be interviewed is unclear – Ronson is a sympathetic interviewer, and allows them to give their side of the story (invariably it is the same story, of a bad joke being taken seriously, because social media robs edgy humour of all its necessary context), but the end result remains a further round of publicity for their blunders.
This is a careful and balanced exploration of the risks and benefits of social media. Ronson explains that he has used Twitter himself to publicly shame people who he thinks have abused public platforms such as newspaper columns to make hurtful comments. Social media could be a force for good, giving a voice to the general populace. But more often than not it is used to undermine and abuse people who have either made a silly mistake, or who don’t deserve any criticism at all. This isn’t entirely persuasive – it sounds like a modern version of the conjugated verb “I use social media to highlight injustice, they abuse people behind the cloak of online anonymity, you are a troll”.
Although this book was only published last year, I couldn’t escape the thought that the events of November 8th 2016 had made it if not irrelevant then certainly out of date. In the book Ronson cites the example of Max Mosley, who was exposed as someone with esoteric sexual appetites and the deep pockets required to indulge them with professional escorts. His response when this was published was to sue the now defunct tabloid newspaper involved on the grounds that it had said the orgies were Nazi-themed rather than merely German military themed, a nuance that the judge found persuasive. Basically he rejected the narrative that said he should be ashamed of his conduct. But this response pales beside the behaviour of the President-Elect, the shameless one, who shrugged off being exposed as a tax-avoiding, draft dodging sex-offender with breath-taking chutzpah. Shame now seems so 2015.