So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson.

It’s not often I finish a book and say out loud, “Well, that was depressing”.

Though absolutely entertaining and enjoyable, the book left me thinking how much our penitentiary system (yes, that’s not a typo, shaming is at the core of how we’re punished) fails us as individuals and society, as well as how easy it is to destroy one’s life with one ambiguous message; and how easy it is to contribute to the destruction of someone else’s life with one vindictive message.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed overall looks at how Twitter in particular has contributed to publicly shaming individuals for mistakes -some of which were indeed shameful, others were just stupid. Some events referred to in the book weren’t even mistakes, but private actions gone public (such as Max Mosley’s German “feast”).

A few things worry me more than others.

Firstly, how easy it seems for people to lose their jobs, not as much for doing something immoral/ illegal / unethical but for using irony in the wrong medium (for examples,  Justine Seco’s unfortunate tweet sarcastically bursting the bubble of those who thought they’d never get AIDS due to their social / ethnic standing); or, more worryingly still, for making a private joke that a stranger decided should go private – like the two tech developers in the audience of a conference, whose private joke was overheard by a woman who found it offensive and decided to shame them in public). Is there no loyalty from employers to understand and assess for themselves the severity of the “transgression”? Isn’t context important? Humanity?

“For the first time in 180 years-since the stocks and the pillory were outlawed- we have the power to determine the severity of some punishments. And so we have to think about what level of mercilessness we feel comfortable with.”

When I purchased the book, I didn’t know how much Jonah Lehrer featured in it. His is the complete story of someone publicly shamed – not just by Twitter – for making a series of bad choices (bad = immoral = unprofessional = illegal ) and not knowing how to deal with the massive fall.


Having read and enjoyed two of his books and watched him live at the RSA lecture, I  followed Lehner’s story when it happened. So I particularly enjoyed the parts of the book where the story unfolded, beyond the “he made up quotes that Dylan never said.”

But this book goes beyond telling stories of public shaming. It looks at why they hurt some people more than others, why some stories get and sustain the public’s attention, how the ability to create a Google footprint might be the only way to move on from a momentary lack of judgement.

More harrowing (and even though the word might be too strong, the thought does worry me) is how shaming is used in the judicial system, in the courtroom during cross-examination and during sentencing.

“It’s disorienting that the line between hell and reclamation in the US justice system is so fine.”

Plus, humiliation can destroy people’s self-esteem and lead to agony-and murderous thoughts.

“Almost none of the murderous fantasies were dreamed up in response to actual danger- stalker ex-boyfriends etc. They were all about the horror of humiliation.”

While the book is not only about the role that Twitter is now playing in public shaming and the consequences it might bring, the author’s main concern is still the role of social media in ripping apart people’s lives; how we might be turning a place (albeit an online one) that could be mind expanding into a club where if you step a bit out of line, you will be shamed out.

As a Twitter user myself, and as someone who’s recently discovered the platform as a social network rather than a brand building tool, this worries me. What do I mean by “this”? I’ll let Jon Ronson’s words explain, as he puts it much better than I ever will.

“Social media is turning into “a giant echo chamber where what we believe is constantly reinforced by people who believe the same thing.” – quoting Adam Curtis.

“We see ourselves as nonconformist, but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age.”

“We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside of it.”

And that, is the last sentence of the book.

You can see why I muttered “Well, this is depressing” as I finished my read.

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