Apr 27, 2015

So You've Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson

I got my first taste of Internet shaming when I was about 16 years old. Working in my dad's law office for the summer, with many of my friends traveling or away at camp, I was bored and looking for something to do. One day while browsing the web I stumbled upon a website - an entire website! - of people who were fans of a rather obscure comedy site. They'd created their own community, kind of like MySpace or Reddit, where you could create or enter different threads and talk to like-minded people. At first, I was welcomed with open arms. The more the merrier! But I was a teenager and the Internet was sort of new to me and, well, I fucked it up. I came across a thread of lawyer jokes. Really horrible, mean-spirited lawyer jokes. Both my parents are lawyers, and I love them dearly, and I'm not so good at differentiating serious ribbing from lighthearted joking. So I said something that I thought would make all those people change their minds about lawyers forever and applaud me for calling them out on their prejudice. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what happened next. They destroyed me. My website-dedicated inbox exploded. They did some digging and found out my AOL email account and spammed the shit out of it, saying the most awful things about and to me. As a 16-year-old with already precariously fragile self-confidence, it threw me into a deep depression and I sobbed for days. The only people I'd ever found who'd accepted me immediately were suddenly my worst enemies.

I'm lucky, actually, that this didn't happen more recently. Twitter or Facebook or Instagram reach an astronomically wider audience; I would have been more than destroyed, I would have been obliterated. Which is what happened to the subjects of Jon Ronson's new book. Jonah Lehrer, Justine Saccho, and Adria Richards have all experienced the worst part of the Internet: mob-mentality fueled by anonymity incited by one stupid little thing. These people lose jobs and friends and most of all their reputation. And we feel good about it, like we're righteous to have destroyed these people's lives. Ronson is trying to remind us that we are all only human. We all make mistakes, and just because some mistakes play out in the public sphere does not give us the right to pillory people so horribly. It's a lesson we are only just becoming aware of, with the rise of suicides driven by cyber-bullying. And he also warns that what we're creating is a culture of overly cautious banality. We're all so afraid to say anything wrong that we say nothing at all; we're losing our individuality. Though the book could have easily gone much deeper, it's definitely a good first step towards self-awareness and reaching an equilibrium between holding bad people accountable and utterly ruining their lives. Shame is an exceedingly powerful emotion and tool, and we need to learn how to wield it more carefully.

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