Shame gets social
A look at Jon Ronson’s latest book examining when the crowd becomes a mob in the lead-up to his Digital Culture Talk
28 July 2015
As a contemporary journalist, Jon Ronson is digitally adept. He uses Twitter to crowdsource research, produces video columns for the Guardian and periodically supports causes he believes in with a retweet or re-post on Tumblr. So imagine his surprise when the tool he'd been using so effectively had been used against him.
In 2012 academics at Warwick University set up a twitter account to mimic Ronson based on his social media activity. ‘Watching #Seinfeld,’ the spambot tweeted, ‘I would love a big plate of celeriac grouper and sour cream kebab with lemongrass.’ Needless to say, the real Ronson was not watching TV and was ambivalent about celeriac.
So Ronson contacted the creators of the spambot and asked them to pull down the spambot. ‘We prefer the term infomorph,’ the creators tweeted in reply. He videos his meeting with the spambot’s creators and discusses how it misrepresents him online. Eventually Ronson was successful in shutting off his virtual alter ego but he discovered he was not alone in being judged online.
He began to look wider for stories like that of Justine Sacco, who tweeted a bad ironically racist joke and soon found herself trending on Twitter. Or the brogrammers who made a misogynistic joke at a conference and soon found themselves plastered all over the internet. Ronson’s exploration became his latest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.
Reading the book, I was reminded of another book that examines how our behaviours have changed with the digital age. Psychiatrist Elias Aboujade began treating people with obsessive and compulsive disorders, but concentrated his studies when he saw how these conditions flourished online. He evolved the idea of an “e-personality”, a different set of behaviours when we’re online. In his 2011 book Virtually You he observed “In ‘social media’, the blogosphere, and on message boards, instincts run rampant and are constantly being fed and reinforced. The superego has gone AWOL.”
This is the phenomenon that Ronson calls ‘piling in’ on someone on social media—a small transgression, a bad joke is reproduced and commented on with digital speed (as Aboujade says, online critics are “bound only by how quickly they can type the next insult”) and often out of context. Our judgement is viral. As Aboujade sees it, our online personality is more prone to delusions of grandeur, narcissism, impulsivity and “ordinary everyday visciousness”. Imagine this individual response amplified by the crowd and you get very anti-social media.
But both writers have some hope. For Aboujade the response is individual: learn ways to moderate how you respond online. Slow down impulse behaviour and you won’t slide into the virtual viciousness. Ronson’s view is broader, looking at how long we take to forgive and exploring how to re-invent your online identity. But ultimately Ronson concludes that the individual viciousness of social media is creating a conservative and conformist society. As his book concludes, “We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside of it.”