Book Review: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

Jon Ronson bookI found a copy of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (2015) while rifling through a stack of free pre-print books earlier this year. I had no idea that Jon Ronson had a new book coming out so soon and snatched it up once I read the words “Jon” and “Ronson” on the cover. I’d previously read The Men Who Stare At Goats, an intelligently written piece of investigative journalism/satire on the clairvoyant, and I thought that this book with such an interesting title would run in the same vein. Instead of discussing what some may see as frivolous, Ronson tackles the intensely serious (albeit largely ignored) topic of public shaming—how it happens, how it affects its victims, and how some have survived it. Sure most people with social media accounts know that more often than not, a potential employer will look them up and peruse their profiles. However, did you know that you could get fired because of something that someone else Tweets about you? Yeah, me neither.  You can read a story about exactly that and the ripples one Tweet can cause in the sixth chapter. Before opening So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, I was aware of the power the Internet yields, but I rarely stopped to think about the ramifications of that power. “I suppose that when shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes,” Ronson writes, “nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be.”

Ronson owns up to his own participation in public shaming (and I am now, world! I’m sorry!) and shows how he initiated one such public shaming in the very first chapter. He discusses the tarnished reputations of successful people, roots out the motives that drive people to shame others, and hypothesizes why others have been able to elude shame. He interviews victims and shamers alike. Throughout the book, I became more amazed that things invented for connection and entertainment can actually turn into weapons—how we as constant sharers, Retweeters, etc. can royally screw someone over. There is a mob-mentality of sorts when it comes to the Internet…This stuck with me: “The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche.” I have since gone through my Tweets and realized that more than I’d like to admit are ridicule-based, although I can say that none of said Tweets were snowflakes in the avalanches written about in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Still, I was (am) disgusted with myself and considered (am still considering) paring down my social media presence. Now I am all the more aware of how impactful the words I throw out into the mysterious Internet void can be, and I am going to try to be more careful about it. “Try” is the operative word here, keep in mind.

Despite the heavy subject matter, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is written with Ronson’s usual charm and wit, which makes it all the more readable. Honestly, I don’t know if I would have been able to make it through some of the more depressing parts if it had been in the clinical (and sometimes droning) style of many current affairs and journalism books. Until reading So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, I only really visualized public shaming as people throwing tomatoes at an especially un-entertaining act. I’d wager that most people are in the same boat and not cognizant of the fact that public shaming is experiencing a renaissance, which makes Ronson’s book all the more important. If you are on the Internet at all (and I know you are if you’re reading this), you should read this book. Whether or not you feel empathy or sympathy for the interviewees, the phenomenon of public shaming itself is fascinating enough to make it a good read. The closing points are awesome, which I won’t recount here because I think you should just go pick up the book and read it. When you’re done, let me know what you think.

Leslie Michaels is currently a Level 3 improv student at the DCH Training Center. She spends her spare time riding her bicycle, playing Ultimate Frisbee, or hanging out with her boyfriend, Netflix. She still questions whether she’s a dog person or a cat person.