So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
I’ve been a fan of Ronson’s for years, since his original TV series way back when. More recently I saw him talk about The Psychopath Test at Hurley in Berkshire, and now we have So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. These last two in particular came just after a rise in Ronson’s filmic fortunes and also, I am certain, mark a fork in the road for him as a writer.
Although The Men Who Stare At Goats was an amazing read about amazing events and ideas, featuring mainly professional characters, most of them in the military in one way or another. But in Shamed, we’re focusing more on people talking about their own personal experiences, not work ones, and with a couple of notable exceptions they are not well-known either. That is the aspect of The Pscyhopath Test that I enjoyed the most: meeting real (ahem) psychopaths, not celebrities or people with some point to prove. They were people who may or may not have killed somebody, trying to come to terms with their situation. Shamed has more of the same, and feels even more authentic, given that these people have genuine emotions that have been publicly exposed.
I also find, since Ronson started spending more time in America, that he is documenting that country as he goes. In not setting out to unmask America as a country in decline, his observations about the place are all the more powerful. All of our so-called social platforms were invented over there and, fairly obviously to me, were created by some of the most antisocial students one could ever wish to avoid. Not much public good has ever come from geeks trying to get hot dates, and it should be no surprise if I mention that I think on balance, Facebook, Google, Twitter and so on are doing more harm than good.
Ronson never quite says this, but there are two crucially important chapters. One about how Google can be gamed to present someone in a different light to reality, be it good or bad. And another about how those companies effectively make chunks of their money from gossip and photos of the most salacious, destructive, and frequently untrue kind. Even more worrying for me, as someone with a day job and a contrasting online persona, I was appalled by the weight which American employers attach to a Google search of their staff. I like to think that kind of thing would be illegal here, but although it is technically illegal to fire you for some misinformation lurking on Google, it is very easy to see that it could thwart an otherwise promising career.
Which is all a way of saying that there are many angles here, and something for everyone who has even the most miniscule online presence. Ever think you had the Facebook privacy settings just right? Think again. They change them so often, and a drunken click of the wrong button on your phone can cause all kinds of misery. This book should finally put to rest the notion that these services are free. Add up the hours you spend in there, and you may well find you’re working the equivalent of an unpaid part-time job for these companies. They represent one of the bigget swindles of all time, when you put it like that, and yet our old-time media seem unwilling to expose their new rivals.
Lots to think about then, and packaged in an exceptional way by a master of his art. He has that knack, does Ron Jonson (sic), of making people open up, even when that is the last thing they want to do.