Social media is fantastic, but it hardly needs saying that it has some pretty awful characteristics. For a start, if you make a mistake by, say, making an offensive joke, or even saying something that is open to misinterpretation, it is very public. And also, the web doesn't forget.
In this very readable book, Jon Ronson interviews people who have been publicly shamed or, in the case of a teenaged girl who committed suicide, a close relative.
Not all public shaming takes place online. The girl just mentioned felt very humiliated during the trial of the boy who raped her. (I remember reading about this at the time.)
In fact, although the book is readable, it is also very uncomfortable to read. And what makes it even more uncomfortable is the realisation that when you 'call someone out' online as the current jargon has it, you could be the instigator, or one of the participants of, a process in which someone is tried and found guilty by 'the mob' -- sometimes without their even being aware of it at the time. You may object to being labelled as one of a mob, especially if you have only three followers on Twitter. But as Ronson says: "The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche".
Ronson is a very good writer, in that he brings some humour and humility to the subject matter. He also manages to end each chapter on a cliffhanger -- which is quite annoying if you need to get other things done!
There is just one area in which I think Ronson is not forceful enough. He says:
"unpleasant as it will surely be for you, when you see an unfair or an ambiguous shaming unfold, speak up on behalf of the shamed person. A babble of opposing voices – that’s democracy."
It's a natural human instinct, I think, to wish to 'stand up for' someone, but there are two other considerations as well. In my opinion, standing by while someone is accused, tried, found guilty and punished sullies the online community. I know of a couple of online forums in which people are pounced upon for no other reason than expressing a contrary view to the majority. It's impossible to have an intellectual or even a merely intelligent discussion in such a negatively febrile atmosphere.
But even if one were to be completely self-centred in such matters, if you don't support some hapless victim, who do you think will support you when it's your turn? And have no doubt: probably one day it will be your turn.
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