by Keidra Chaney
I’ve been thinking a lot in the past couple of years about the pitfalls of living a public life on social media and the scrutiny (or, sometimes, danger) that comes with sharing one’s opinions in a public forum. A lot of it comes from observing the fallout as people that I know — some friends, colleagues, strangers, even some people I’m not too close with, but most of them writers — become targets of online harassment, usually for publicly stating their opinions about some issue connected to racial and/or gender equality. Sometimes it’s as abstract as a gendered or racial insult, other times it’s specific and targeted: a threat of lynching or rape, doxxing, etc. It’s frightening and chilling to watch, and in the past couple of years in particular, I’ve become much more selective and closed off in my actions and my intent to share online, even as I applaud the bravery of my colleagues who continue on, some of them mining the depths of their own personal trauma, to make a broader point about issues of race and gender online and off.
At the same time, I’ve cringed a number of times as I’ve witnessed the cycle of Twitter outrage over issues large and small online, as some random Twitter user is publicly raked over the coals by thousands of people for some random comment or off-color joke they thought they were making to a small group of friends online. Sometimes the statement is truly abhorrent, say for example the college baseball player who called 13-year-old Little League wunderkind Mo’ne Davis a “slut.”
Other times it’s simply a comedy of errors, where someone’s sarcasm or dry wit is misunderstood by masses and a person is publicly humiliated for a comment taken completely out of context, like the guy who saw Neil Degrasse Tyson on the subway and called him a “dumbass nerd” (It really was a joke.) Either way, the cycle of public outrage on Twitter does happen about every eight to 14 hours and you can be guaranteed that as long as there are no dead celebrities to publicly mourn, someone’s being publicly called out for a perceived or actual misdeed by a few hundred people.
Sometimes the ramifications are severe, like the college baseball player, who was suspended, other times it’s not. Michael Hale, the “dumbass nerd” guy had his mentions overrun by angry nerds for a few days, He wrote a blog post about it on Gawker, I bet he made enough to pay for a nice meal for himself at a Brooklyn brewpub. If you’re a high profile person of color or a woman on Twitter, or both, you don’t necessarily need a lightning-rod viral tweet to bring people in your Twitter mentions calling you a “nigger” or a “cunt” pretty much daily.
All of this to say, if you’re a media professional and/or highly active on social media, Jon Ronson’s latest book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed won’t be a revelation to you. You probably know about the book already and may have watched many of Ronson’s “case studies” as they unfolded online: disgraced author Jonah Lehrer, Justine Sacco of #hasjustinelandedyet fame, and the complicated issue of “Donglegate” which I’ll get into more detail about later. You’ve probably experienced some level of the social media shame cycle (hopefully not personally) and you probably have some thoughts about the book even before you’ve read it.
I know I did. I’ve actually enjoyed Ronson’s past work, I’ve read essays and articles from him before, I enjoyed his film “Frank.” I figured there was a chance he could pull off the kind of critical analysis that the topic of online shaming deserves. Whether or not he succeeded, I guess, depends on how one defines online shaming and what one thinks the worst possible outcomes of being targeted and shamed online could possibly be. For Ronson, it was clear that for him the worst possible outcome was the possibility of losing one’s reputation, status, or employment. This was the common narrative in many of the stories in “Shamed”: Whether it was Lehrer, whose plagiarism damaged his own career as a pop-psychology speaker and guru, or Sacco, whose off-color tweets about Africa and AIDS deep-sixed her New York PR career, or “Donglegate” the controversy that led to the firings of both Richards and “Hank” the software developer whose puerile joke was called out on Twitter by her.
Ronson is a not a social psychologist or sociologist, but he is a talented wordsmith and empathetic storyteller. I believe he intended to write “Shamed” with the intent of telling the stories of those impacted by online shaming and those who take part. Unfortunately he undermines his own attempts to place this topic into a broader analysis of online culture by wrongly conflating the embarrassment of shaming with the fear of online harassment.
Most of Ronson’s examples in “Shamed” revolved around those whose professional reputations were damaged online. But if you belong to any kind of marginalized group online (a woman, a person of color, trans, etc.) you may also be acutely aware that shame is but one part of the risk of living a public life online. Being personally attacked, or having your safety (or the safety of your family) threatened. And while all such threats may not be “credible,” I don’t know any people who have ever been threatened with violence who have waited around to find out if their harasser was serious about carrying it through.
The professional risks that stem from any kind of online fallout are arguably much greater for marginalized people in any profession. They are compounded for anyone who makes any public statement or criticism about race or gender discrimination (or even discomfort) in their profession. The examples put forward by Ronson are an example of this, though likely not his intent. Donglegate left “Hank” without a career for several months, but he eventually got another job. Meanwhile, Adria Richards was essentially frozen out of her own profession in addition to being threatened with threats of rape and violence by strangers online.
I came into reading the book bracing myself for Ronson’s analysis of Donglegate, which I followed closely when it happened a couple of years ago. (Full disclosure: I was on a panel with Adria Richards, the woman of color at the center of Donglegate, a few years ago, and I admire her work. As a woman who has existed on the periphery of the startup/tech conference scene for years, and never felt particularly comfortable or welcome, the fallout of Donglegate and how it affected her career weighed heavily on me.)
“Shamed” would be skewed towards a putting forward a particular “party line” among some journalists about the so-called “toxic” nature of social media. Articles like Michelle Goldberg’s “Toxic Twitter Wars” piece in The Nation or Jonathan Chait’s New York magazine article put forth the idea that online “mobs” (primarily women or people of color) have the collective power and influence online to destroy the professional reputations of well-meaning people with presumably false accusations of racism, sexism, etc.
Ronson doesn’t say these things explicitly in “Shamed,” but he tells his stories from that very perspective, one that positions those on the periphery of the media and tech industries (women, people of color, freelancers, social media participants/”hashtag activists”) as mere interlopers. It’s an incredibly myopic view that fails to acknowledge the structural power dynamics (whether its race, or gender, class, professional connections, etc.) that ultimately protects media professionals like Sacco and Lehrer but not the so-called “shamers” of social media.
That’s a bigger story than “Shamed” could tell, however. It’s a story that goes far beyond the personal narratives of social media relationships and gets to the heart of how disruptive social technology has been to traditional media (yet not disruptive enough to topple the institutional structures that keep marginalized people out.) Ronson isn’t the person to write this book but I doubt the people most qualified to do so will be getting book deals any time soon.