Jon Ronson’s work has always been fascinated with people whose ideas relegate them to the edges of society—his second book, Them, was subtitled Adventures With Extremists—but his new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, tries to understand the society that rejects them. Who are these people who seem to take such joy in ripping apart complete strangers over the slightest moral weakness? Or, more accurately, who are we to take such joy in ripping apart complete strangers over the slightest moral weakness?
Specifically, Ronson investigates the phenomenon of online shaming, attending the Twitter flogging of disgraced journalist Jonah Lehrer, checking in with Justine Sacco, who lost her job and her reputation over a racist Twitter joke—Twitter is ground zero for Internet pillorying, apparently—and attempting to help Lindsey Stone, who received death threats over a Facebook picture that appeared to show her flipping the bird at Arlington National Cemetery. Ronson sees himself in these modern-day adulterers and blasphemers. Who doesn’t make an ill-advised crack on social media every once in a while? But he also sees himself in their self-appointed judges, and interviews a 4Chan regular, a Texas judge who specializes in public shaming, and a woman who “called out” two tech developers for telling a sexist joke at a conference, among others.
Ronson has always functioned as an outside observer, an unassuming man sitting unnoticed in the corner scribbling on his notepad. But as his profile has grown, that becomes harder and harder to do, something that is reflected here. (One potential interview subject questions whether Ronson will treat the serious subject of his reputation with the gravitas it deserves, considering the content of his previous books.) But, to his credit, Ronson is transparent about these issues. He also very deliberately lays out every persuasive phone call and temporal shift that took place during the writing of the book, good journalistic practice that must have been reinforced by the object lesson of interviewing famous plagiarists.
As with his book, The Psychopath Test, Ronson seems determined to tease some sort of larger social meaning out of these stories of humiliation and (occasionally) redemption. It’s an admirable goal, and occasionally Ronson comes close to a big revelation, particularly when he attempts to unravel the gender implications of public disgrace. (His observation that politicians and other prominent men who successfully weather sex scandals have women like Princess Donna, a woman who has dedicated her life to destigmatizing BDSM and runs a website called—appropriately enough—Public Disgrace, to thank for their rehabilitation, while Donna is forever stigmatized, is particularly insightful.) But the last third of the book, where Ronson attempts to zoom out and locate an exit from the labyrinth of online offense, lack the gut-punch effect of early chapters.
In the end, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is a Jon Ronson book like most other Jon Ronson books. It’s sharply observed, amusingly told, and, while its conclusions may stop just short of profound, the true pleasure of the book lies in arriving at those conclusions. It will make you think twice before pressing “send,” though.