By @SimonCocking

So you’ve been publicly shamed : A review

Latest book by Jon Ronson @jonronson, 2015, best selling author of ‘The men who stare at goats’, and ‘Lost at sea’, as well as several other books looking at madness and dysfunction in modern society.

Ronson is known as a comic writer, at the same time as covering serious subjects. This book in particular treads a thin line between being an enjoyable read and touching on some potentially difficult and serious issues. Our online presence is becoming a trickier proposition now that we are online more and more. This leaves more traces for other people to look you up and make an opinion about you, for better or worse.

You should already assume potential employers are looking you up on LinkedIn, but you should also consider twitter, facebook, instagram, and even gaming discussion boards, and other places that you may not necessarily want them looking. While you may be essentially a good person, it’s quite easy for other people to take a dislike to what you said, and do things to hack, tarnish, and even destroy your online reputation.

This was potentially what Ronson found himself facing when he discovered some university academics had created a fake @jon_ronson twitter persona and began tweeting slightly randomly inappropriate comments. You can even watch him meeting the people who created it, and their justifications for doing so.

The account in the book, and the video above, are both compelling and slightly like watching a car crash. You know it’s kinda awful but you can’t help continuing to see how it turns out.

Overall the book continues in this vein. Following a series of people who did things they probably shouldn’t have, but then got massively and disproportionately punished by the online world. The people he profiles, Jonah Lehrer, Justine Sacco, and Lindsey Stone, among others, did some stupid things. The question is whether the response and the reaction were proportionate to the dumb things they did.

Time and time again things frequently spiraled out of proportion, reaching to the point of death threats, rape and other brutal threats toward them. There are often real world consequences, with several of the people mentioned in the book losing their jobs. Others have also committed suicide, Sunil Tripathi for example, who was falsely accused of the Boston bombings on reddit and other online chat forums.

Having told the stories of various characters chapter by chapter, Ronson keeps them in mind, often returning to consider their plight, and their continued experiences. Some characters are able to shake off their moment of shame far quicker than others. Ronson tries to identify why this is, and what strategies they used to achieve this.

Throughout the book Ronson keeps looking at the balance between online research being a force for greater truth, and the damage it can do to people’s lives as well. Ronson also seems to express a sense of ‘there but for the grace of god …’ This is especially noticeable in his end notes as he  identifies where he drew from previously written content, partly perhaps to avoid a similar fate to Johan Lehrer who was caught out making up Bob Dylan quotes. Lehrer was caught out by an Dylan obsessive, not a huge surprise really. There are quite a few of them out there. And far too quickly he was ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ as he tried to lie his way out of it.

The Lehrer episode illustrates why this is an enjoyable book to read. Ronson tries to treat the interviewees with honesty and respect. At the same time he doesn’t shy away from asking the questions we would like him to ask them. In this way the book unfolds, providing a cautionary tale of how we should try to engage with the digital world.

Difficult as it is to always achieve, the best advice would seem to be along the lines of,

‘if you can’t say something nice about someone, then think very, very hard, about whether you’d like it immortalised for the online world to see, for ever and ever…’

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