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Book Review: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

12 June, 2015
By Allison Orr

Jon Ronson’s new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, looks at the other side of the participatory net: the revival of public shaming.

Jon looks closely into several recent online shamings – among them Justine Sacco, who in tweeted in December 2014, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”; Jonah Lehrer, an author found to have plagiarised his writings; Lindsey Stone, who posted a silly photo at a war grave.  Ronson looks closely at these and other examples of people who have been publicly criticized and ultimately shamed, for their actions, most of which are pretty petty offences.

The book shows that shame as a form of public behavior regulation hasn’t died; it’s moved online and it’s gathering strength.

There are a few confronting moments in the book as people try to work this out.  In some cases it’s about power, and making a difference you aren’t able to effect in the real world.  For example, when Ronson asks a 4Chan user about those who participate in these destructive online campaigns, she replies: “A lot of them are bored, under-stimulated, over-persecuted powerless kids.  They know they can’t be anything they want.  So they went to the Internet.  On the Internet we have power in situations where we would otherwise be powerless.”

This has been a recurring theme since the advent of the Internet, that its anarchic structure would somehow equalize power relations, giving citizens a platform to publicly strike back.  But Ronson’s book seems to indicate that, like any other form of power, it is open to abuse. When a “shaming event” event happens online it appears to have all the characteristics of a mob.

It’s interesting that one of the victims says we are now living in a world where the smartest way to survive online is to be bland – never say anything that could be taken the wrong way, or is controversial or unfunny, a far cry from the free creative space the Internet is imagined to be.   Of course, a response to that would be to not live so much of your life online, or be so open with the world about your life choices, and occasionally resist the urge to share any funny moment or photo you have with the online world.

Ronson’s book really only focuses on cases where an individual has been publicly shamed, and has chosen examples where the infraction has been minor and not caused harm to anyone.  This makes it pretty easy to put forward the case against online shaming.  But he doesn’t really go into aspects of power and choices people might have to use it for a cause, for example like #droughtshaming in California, which has shed light on water waste during a severe drought. 

The latter part of the book discusses the “Right to be Forgotten”, which has been put into practice in Europe, and is supposed to protect people from being perpetually shamed or stigmatized by actions online.  It’s still a little unclear how this will work in the long-term, and how it interacts with freedom of expression rights.  But, given that tens of thousands applied to be forgotten straight away, there appears to be a need for it. 

An insight into why shaming is so personally devastating, and why the right to be forgotten may need to be a global concept comes from this person interviewed for the book:

“The way we construct consciousness is to tell the story of ourselves to ourselves, the story of who we believe we are.  I feel that a really public shaming or humiliation is a conflict between the person trying to write his own narrative and society trying to write a different narrative for the person”.

Previously published in undefined.

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