So You've Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson
I dare you to resist this title. Bet you can't!
Jon Ronson starts off with his own experience with public shaming. In a bizarre exercise in online postmodernism, three academics lifted his name and photo and made a spambot (oh wait no, infomorph) that tweeted random stuff all the time. They wouldn't take it down! So he got them together for an interview, and when he posted it on Youtube, people criticized the academics until they finally took it down. Hooray for the voice of the people! Justice prevails! But wow, some of those comments were kind of skeevy....
Ronson started paying attention to this whole phenomenon we've got of public shaming, especially (but certainly not only) on Twitter. Whether it's a large or small offense, a misfired joke or a serious crime, once the Internet mob gets going it can just about ruin a life. The mob is merciless and it never forgives. So Ronson talks with some of the people. He also talks with some people whose lived haven't been ruined, who may even have come out of it more popular than before. What is shame, anyway? How do you recover from it?
A lot of the names in this book are familiar. Jonah Lehrer made up Bob Dylan quotations. Adria Richards publicly shamed two guys who made a fairly innocuous joke about dongles. When they lost their jobs, she was publicly shamed and lost her job. One woman jokingly took a tactless photo at a veteran's memorial and the blowback drove her to spend the next year housebound. And so it goes. An awful lot of the time, the punishment is far worse than the original mistake was. People sometimes argue that Internet mob justice is "punching up" against the patriarchy or the wealthy or whatever, but that's hard to buy. Mostly, it just feels great to be so righteously angry.
In fact, as Ronson is at pains to point out, public shaming is an old punishment that went out of style in the 18th century. They used to do it with stocks and public flogging and letters, but in the 1700s most everybody decided that those punishments were too cruel, so they were gradually outlawed.
It's a quick and fascinating read. Ronson wanders around the topic a lot, so it's not just an endless litany of Internet scandals, which would get pretty old. There's also a shame-eradication workshop! And, er, a chapter about some other things. And the businesses that exist to help you fix your online image, to push that awful incident down a couple of pages so that when you apply for a job, it isn't the first and only thing that pops up about you.
And here's my advice: if you're tempted to join the pile-on in next week's Internet public shaming, resist it, or at least think carefully about what's going on. Recreational outrage feels great, solves little, and does a lot of damage along the way.