Jon Ronson had not previously viewed his writing as a way to change minds. But then he took on the issue of public shaming. He witnessed social media, a place that meant community and connection to him, being used to condemn.
“It came from, ‘What has my beloved social media done? I married a monster.'” Ronson says. “If I hated social media, I wouldn’t have written this book with such passion.”
In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Ronson documents high-profile cases of social-media shaming and the effects that follow the condemned for years. Jobs are not just lost, careers are ruined, relationships broken and, in some cases, lives ended. Ronson’s coming to town, as part of LitFest’s 10-day celebration of non-fiction, to discuss the book.
“I think in reading it I’m trying to make people feel what it feels like to have an anxiety attack,” Ronson says.
The effect is achieved: with the downward spiral of the shamed, it’s hard to not throw the book across the room. But Ronson’s goal is to change this situation.
“My previous book was kind of playing anxiety for laughs,” he notes. “With this book I feel it’s more of a campaign, and I want people to change their behaviour.”
It’s the online mob, more than the shamed, that he hopes will take a look at their actions.
Ronson says that regardless of beliefs—left or right, progressive social justice advocate or misogynist—people are not thinking of their fellow humans in complex ways.
“They’re thinking, ‘I’m going to define you by this one tweet,'” Ronson notes.
And once the mob has spoken, few are willing to speak out as defenders of the shamed.
Ronson uses the case of Justine Sacco, who he believes did nothing wrong, as an example. The online world watched as Sacco flew to South Africa not knowing a tweet she had sent moments before take off would cast her as a racist forever, ending her career and future prospects.
“Nobody supported her,” Ronson says. “The mainstream media, all these people who knew that her joke wasn’t intended to be racist, all shut down and allowed that to happen.”
Ronson’s belief in the power of social media is why he sees the potential for more empathetic and nuanced conversations about our individual lives.
His book documents the complex case of Adria Richards, where accuser and accused face the consequences of condemnation. Richards posted a photo of two men who had been making inappropriate jokes at a tech conference. All involved lost their jobs, but Richards faced greater online misogyny and scorn for posting about her life as a woman of colour in the male-dominated tech industry.
Ronson hopes the future of online conversation will explore both sides of the conversation, allowing for understanding and an end to the misogyny out there.
“All we have to do is think of Twitter as a window into other people’s worlds and as a place to be curious,” Ronson says.
It’s a topic he’s not leaving. Ronson is already forming his next project on the evolution of our online conversations.
“This is the only time where I finished a book and felt that the journey isn’t over.”