Jon Ronson takes some really interesting case studies and explores the concept of modern shaming, focussing on media like Facebook and Twitter and on the reaction that people like Lindsey Stone, the girl whose friend took a photo of her giving the finger and pretending to shout near a sign at a war memorial that says ‘Silence and Respect’, and Justine Sacco, a PR executive who tweeted ‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!’, received when they broadcast their ill-advised messages.
Like Ronson says, we are in an age where a great renaissance of public shaming is taking place. Shaming has always been used as a form of control, but with the advent of the internet justice, Ronson claims, has been democratised.
The book has been well-thought-out and it is well structured so that one case study, interview or argument flows logically to the next. His arguments are well reasoned and only occasionally lapse into sensationalism (and frankly, who could blame him? This is a sensational subject, after all.)
As I read the book, I found myself thinking about the things I post not only on social media but also on review sites and my blog. If anything, I sometimes berate myself for being too average. I rarely post personal opinions or information on Twitter or Facebook and I always try to give reviews of books that are balanced and fair. Uncontroversial. And if I give a poor review, I always try to back up my review with arguments as to why it didn’t work for me, rather than just posting “THIS IS CRA-A-A-A-AP! And you’re all idiots if you like it!” So it always astonishes me slightly when people post things like Justine Sacco’s tweet because in what alternate universe do these people think that the internet is like a private conversation? The stuff you post is there for everyone to see. That’s the whole point.
The pacing of the book was generally quite good - it slowed down towards the end and eventually kind of petered out rather than ending on an explosion (I like books that end on an explosion), but it did keep my interest throughout and I think this was mostly due to Ronson’s writing style. He manages to tackle a serious subject but he has this dry wit that I really like.
I have to say, though, the one part of the book I didn’t really understand was the part concerning Jonah Lehrer - the journalist who was publicly destroyed for making up some quotes. Like I said before I don’t often read non-fiction, so I have little idea about the do’s and don’t’s of non-fiction writing, but one of the quotes he made up was:
‘Whenever Dylan read about himself in the newspapers, he made the same observations: “God, I’m glad I’m not me,” he said, “I’m glad I’m not that.”’
Apparently the “I’m glad I’m not that” part was fabricated by Lehrer.
Now, I’ve got no idea why he made that bit up. Maybe in the wider context of the book it has a lot of resonance, but it doesn’t seem to be that noteworthy and the other quotes Lehrer made up were similarly shruggy.
Now, if Lehrer had made up a quote like, “And, by the way, I may look like a guy, but I actually identify as female” or “I secretly hate being a songwriter and wish to god I’d been an accountant instead” - something profound or perception-changing - then I could understand the vilification, but the bits he made up seem so ... banal.
He was also found to have self-plagiarised - he recycled passages that he had previously used in other articles or books. Now, I certainly don’t get why this is so career-destroyingly bad. If it’s his own work and he’s not plagiarising from someone else (which I definitely understand is wrong!), it doesn’t seem terribly professional, but hardly
Maybe it’s just one of the differences between fiction and non-fiction writing. I know of one YA author whose sex scene in her vampire romance novel is very, very similar to the sex scene in her zombie apocalypse novel. Did I mind? I did not. It was her work and she could do what she wanted with it. (It was a pretty hot sex scene, and I read it with great interest.)
I tried to imagine if something like this had happened in a non-fiction book I was reading. Honestly, I don’t think it would bother me at all if I noticed two very similar passages by the same author.
So yes, I didn’t get why Lehrer’s transgressions, while obviously not great, completely destroyed his life and led to such a massive outcry, but Jon Ronson seems to get it (as he would - he is, after all a non-fiction writer so has a much better idea than I do of what is acceptable journalistic practise and what isn’t) and because the Lehrer story is a thread throughout the book it constantly reminded me that there was some fundamental piece of the book that I just wasn’t getting.
Despite the Lehrer thing, though, this was a really interesting insight into the internet shaming culture. Maybe it will serve as some kind of cautionary message that we should all try to mind our own business a little bit more and think about the consequences of everyone just piling in on someone who has transgressed. I doubt it, though.