Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Review: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed – Jon Ronson

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed – Jon Ronson

For the past three years, Jon Ronson has travelled the world meeting recipients of high-profile public shamings. The shamed are people like us—people who, say, made a joke on social media that came out badly, or made a mistake at work. Once their transgression is revealed, collective outrage circles with the force of a hurricane and the next thing they know they're being torn apart by an angry mob, jeered at, demonized, sometimes even fired from their job. 
A great renaissance of public shaming is sweeping our land. Justice has been democratized. The silent majority are getting a voice. But what are we doing with our voice? We are mercilessly finding people's faults. We are defining the boundaries of normality by ruining the lives of those outside it. We are using shame as a form of social control.

Review: I wanted to read this book because I heard that it’s about Twitter. Twitter is a frightening, endlessly fascinating beast. It’s like a fickle god. Most of the time, it completely ignores you, but if you somehow manage to catch its attention, strange things can happen. Twitter can give you opportunities you never dreamed were possible. Or it can completely destroy you.

In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson examines the history of public shaming and looks at modern examples of it. He does focus a lot on social media “call-out culture,” but he also discusses shaming in prisons, courts, as therapy, and as a sexual fetish.

This is the type of nonfiction that I love. The author has a great sense of humor. The writing style is very readable and not dry at all. The book covers a wide range of topics related to public shaming, but it moves through them quickly, so I never got bored. I constantly felt like I was learning something, which is what I look for in a nonfiction book. It hits that perfect intersection of educational and intensely interesting.

“A life had been ruined. What was it for: just some social media drama? I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we get old and stop. But with social media, we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people.” - So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed 

“There is nothing I dislike more in the world than people who care more about ideology than they do about people.” - So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

My only complaint about the book is that the author judges the people he talks about. He decides who deserves shame and who doesn’t. That bothers me. He also has an unexplained obsession with Justine Sacco, a woman who was shamed after making a racist joke on Twitter. He keeps coming back to her story, but I don’t know why. Why is her story more interesting than the others? Why does he think she’s less deserving of shame than the other people whose stories he told? I don’t know.

This book did make me feel better about how I use social media. I’m completely guilty of posting nasty political memes, but yelling at random strangers has always seemed pointless to me. I’ve never understood the appeal of dogpiling or harassment. I once had someone tell me, “You’re a bad person if you don’t call out racists on Twitter.” Sorry, but I think that’s crap. In my experience, dogpiling on stupid people doesn’t make them any less stupid. It just makes them angry and stupid. I’ve never understood the point of harassing strangers online. Instead of tearing down stupid people, why don’t you boost up the smart people who are doing good things? Drown out the bad with the good.

Fun Facts About Public Shaming

  • Public shaming used to be part of the US judicial system, but it was outlawed in the 1830s for being too cruel. The Internet has brought shaming back with a vengeance.

“I suppose that when shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be.” - So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

  • A few judges in the US still use public shaming as punishment for crimes. Shaming does work on nonviolent offenders. The author interviewed a shoplifter and a drunk driver who said that public shaming made their lives better. They didn’t commit any more crimes.

  • Shaming doesn’t work on prisoners. When violent offenders feel humiliated, they become more violent. When prisoners had access to education, therapy, and well-trained guards, violence in prisons decreased.

  • Victims of public shaming are at a high risk for suicide. Many victims of shaming end up killing themselves.

“[W]e need to think twice about raining down vengeance and anger as our default position.” - So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

  • On Twitter, we have a habit of reducing people to “good” or “evil.” Since we don’t know our fellow Twitter-users in real life, we tend to oversimplify them. That makes it easier for us to harass them. One mistake can define how we interact with a person online forever. Once your online reputation is tarnished, it can be impossible to fix.

  • The Internet is real life. People who are publically shamed usually lose their jobs and can’t get new ones because employers Google potential employees. Twitter has a short attention span, but Google never forgets.

“We were creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland.” - So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed 

“We’re creating a culture where people feel constantly surveilled, where people are afraid to be themselves.” - So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

  • If you’re super wealthy, you can pay a company to fix your online reputation.

  • The threats that women get during public shamings are more violent than the threats that men get. Shamers try to get men fired from their jobs. Women are more likely to be threatened with rape, murder, or physical violence.

  • I was really surprised by what Twitter thinks is deserving of shame. A survivor of a deadly train accident jokes about losing her violin in the crash? Shame and vengeance for her. A married man is filmed having kinky sex with prostitutes? Twitter doesn’t care.

“We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside it.” - So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

  • You’re more likely to be shamed if Twitter believes you’re “misusing your privilege.” However Twitter defines that.

If you’re new to reading nonfiction, this book is a good place to start. I think the author occasionally gets in his own way by being judgmental, but the book is a quick, easy read. It may also make you reconsider how you behave online.


  1. This book definitely looks really interesting, so I'll have to check this out soon! I've never understood the point of harassing people online either, and I think in a lot of cases people who like to shame people online just like the drama, even if they try and say it's because they have some sort of moral duty to call people out.
    And personally I think if someone expresses some sort of problematic thing online, calling them out doesn't actually change their opinion, it just makes them defensive, and probably consolidates it (as you say, it makes them angry and stupid, not less stupid!). That's not to say people should be allowed to say anything they want online and get away with it, but it's probably better to report things and try and get it removed than start arguments with people online, or get loads of people to join you in berating them. Boosting good people who are doing good things definitely sounds like a much better use of time to me! :)
    It's definitely an interesting topic! Great review! :)

    1. Yes! If someone’s being a jerk online, hit the report button and go do something good with your time. That’s my strategy for dealing with social media.

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

  2. OMG THIS REVIEW, THIS BOOK! How fascinating! You make a real case for reading this even though I'm not a fan of nonfiction... I'm curious now why the author was so fascinated with how that woman was treated?!

    I agree though I'm not into calling people out on twitter... I just don't see spreading the hate as being very helpful! ♥️

    1. It’s a really interesting book. I recommend it, even if you don’t like nonfiction. It’s very readable.

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

  3. This sounds incredibly interesting! I always say that I am so glad that social media didn't exist when I was in high school being dumb. Nobody needs a record of that. I have twitter but honestly don't do a lot with it or facebook. I have come across a few threads that would qualify as public shaming and it makes me uncomfortable. I will keep this one in mind.

  4. I have this on my audio wishlist. I actually heard about it in relation to the racist twitter joke on an internet article. Glad you enjoyed it. Great review!

  5. Sometimes I feel like something has to be said, because people can't think that things like racism are ok. Especially if the person came at me - then they have no excuse. Or Nazis. Because Nazis.

    But it's also damned tiring. Whenever I see bigotry on line, I try to find a way to boost a diverse voice - kind of like a balancing of the universe! Lol, I have soooo much to blame on my hippie parents.