The Internet is a dangerous place. People feel safe, anonymous and powerful while hiding behind a computer screen. This prompts some people to be mercilessly cruel when degrading others online.
In his book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson takes an in-depth look at lives that were uprooted through use of social media. While Twitter can be a progressive platform for social change, it also has the capacity for users to perpetuate a cycle of degradation and humiliation of people with whom they disagree. The most terrifying fact about this whole conundrum is that people, everyday people, have complete control over this situation. If Shakespeare had a Twitter account, he would say, “To post or not to post, that is the question.”
Public shaming, as Ronson notes, is not unique to social media platforms. This type of punishment is as old as organized society itself. Putting a prisoner in a stockade for a day is medieval equivalent of posting an unflattering picture of an ex-best friend to their Facebook page.
Ronson realized that “[w]hen we developed shame, we were utilizing an immensely powerful tool. It was coercive, borderless, and increasing in speed and influence.” Widely successful technology moguls whom our society reveres have created a vacuum in which public shaming could thrive and happen unchecked.
The goal of his book is simple: Jon Ronson investigated these events of cyber-public shaming and analyzed the validities of the arguments. Did the people deserve such punishment, or did the hoi polloi just exchange their pitchforks for keyboards?
Ronson writes, “I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we are old and stop. But with social media, we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama.” People crave gossip and action. With social media, there is a ready supply of such cases and a plentiful source of entertainment.
Have you ever heard of “group madness”? This term was coined and studied by a nineteenth century French doctor named Gustave LeBon. He hypothesized that people lost all control of their faculties in a mob and the normal restraint with which they use to govern themselves disappears. People on the Internet can be considered to be in a state of “group madness” because they have no individual accountability. Rather, they are just one username of many.
Within his book, Ronson presents multiple case studies that demonstrate different incidents when people were shamed with the help of social media. For example, he talks about two men at a tech conference who made a crude joke about a piece of computer hardware. A female member of the crowd found the joke completely innapropriate and disrespectful.
To make a long story short, the woman shared a picture of those men on Twitter with the joke they made below the picture. Ultimately, all three people lost their jobs and all three people suffered humiliating comments. The men were fired on account of insensitivity to female coworkers, and the woman was fired because she got a family-man fired from that job that was supporting his wife and children. In this example, while gender politics come into play, social media facilitated the vehicle for all the public threats against everyone involved.
Ronson poses this question to his reader: “I wondered what would happen it we made a point of eschewing the shaming completely – if we refused to shame anyone.” Destroying someone’s life on social media all boils down to the question of to retweet, to repost, or to engage in a hostile environment. This could all be easily avoided if people chose not toengage.
I am slowly coming to the gloomy realization that my generation is “creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland” in terms of social media usage. The way to guarantee safety on the perilous interwebs is to conform to the norm. This is a sad fact that will hopefully change in the future as people become more tolerant and less concerned with tearing other people down.