Jon Ronson’s “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” is a timely book, tethered as closely to a specific moment and discourse as a 300-page book can be. Drawing on a number of cases of varying public prominence, Ronson attempts to craft a taxonomy of the soft vigilante justice that is internet shaming, enabled by platforms like Twitter and new, mile-a-minute online journalism. That the book rarely feels preachy or too reliant on its zeitgeist-y premise is something of a miracle.
Ronson never claims to be an objective observer. His commentary reads like the voice-over scroll of a nature documentary transposed onto the wilds of the Internet age. He nonetheless manages to provide the sort of big-picture summation that might seem rigged in the hands of a lesser writer. Ronson’s charming self-deprecation and cool sense of irony, along with his arguments, which are structured around the process of his research, make “So You’ve Been” consistently entertaining and thought provoking.
It is in some ways unfair to simply present Ronson’s latest book as a discussion of online shaming because the ultimate takeaway is far greater. It’s impressive that Ronson manages to gracefully gesture towards larger questions without seeming too much like a start-up CEO suggesting that a new piece of software is really just about the fundamental nature of human connection. There are certainly moments when the book is in danger of this, but the reader also gets the sense that Ronson is fully aware of that, riding to the point of no return before reeling a particular chapter or anecdote back into the realm of the concrete. The bubble of the Internet seems to elude most registers of discourse and conversation, an issue that is only amplified by the weirdness of writing about a recent phenomenon in bold analytic terms. It can feel disingenuous or forced to try to tease thematic threads from a cultural movement or conflict that is only now unraveling. Even when it’s done well, those threads and ideas often carry the promise that in a few years they will be comically irrelevant, bowled over by some new research or an even more brazen counterexample.
It helps, then, that Ronson’s big-picture ideas feel more individualized than collectivized. It also helps that Ronson has a wonderful sense of the absurd and a duffel bag of examples wild enough to elude pretension.
That Ronson states his big idea about how we feel and employ shame in the title prevents the big reveal from appearing exceptionally showy. For the most part, we know what we’ve been looking at all along; Ronson is not refocusing a lens to transform an old crone into a young maid.
The case studies that “So You’ve Been” draws upon are wonderfully diverse. Ronson addresses Justine Sacco’s Twitter debacle, the Stanford Prison Experiment, and a visit to an extreme bondage porn shoot. The examples feel distinct and self-sufficient, and though they are often doled out in quick succession, each seems necessary. They do not feel like puzzle pieces recut to make a halfhearted whole; they feel like some sort of community of cultural instants. In fact, while there are gripping and thought-provoking moments in which the reader can watch Ronson assemble and trace the structure of his argument, the best moments in the book make it seem as though the disparate pieces were found together to begin with, that the author is simply showing his reader how they have naturally interacted since the beginning.
Ultimately, though, what makes these moments of analysis work best are Ronson’s hands-on approach and sincere interest in his subjects. Ronson interviews as many of his subjects as he can, even taking time to explain why some were not available, or willing to, communicate.
Many of the things the book approaches are messy and morally slipshod. This fact makes them powerful and worthy of discussion. Ronson seems genuinely interested in the people he references. He does his best to address situations from every angle and provide insight into the aspects of the chaos he can lock onto (normally, most of them).
Ultimately, what interests Ronson is the fusion of the moral, the emotional, and the judicial. At its core, shaming is often an emotional reaction to an issue, presented as moral and executed as judicial. The punishment is definitively emotional. That so many of the issues public shaming is meant to address are ultimately moral and judicial issues only complicates the muddle.
Much like in his fantastic “The Psychopath Test,” Ronson is interested in speaking to all levels of an issue. If the weakness of shaming is that it often forgets many of its own constitutive parts (the legal, the personal, the historical, the cultural), “So You’ve Been” is the perfect response precisely because it is painstakingly holistic. For all its humor, bite, and insight, Ronson’s book feels more like a question than an answer. It recognizes both the novelty and universality of its problem. Though aware of the issue’s injurious nature, “So You’ve Been” refuses to be a Band-Aid.