Jon Ronson Spreads the Gospel of Social Media Understanding

Public shaming can ruin your life.

Getty Images

Jon Ronson is on a mission: If you didn’t catch his book excerpt in The New York Times or read “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” Ronson has done you the favor of summing up his new doctrine in a TED Talk. What is England’s leading amateur psychologist going on about? Mob behavior on the Internet. And he’s got a preacher’s zeal.

The talk is a document of our time and not just because you can listen to it on your Beats by Dre headphones. It ought to be required viewing for all the e-pugilists out there. In it, Ronson, who feels like a way-too-serious member of Monty Python, details cases of those who have made Internet stumbles and paid the price, dearly. These stories are affecting dissections of social media roadkill.

As documented from the get-go by Ronson, Sacco was, well, sacked from IAC and hounded by hordes of faceless key-stabbers online for this tweet: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Surely, it was in bad taste, but did she deserve to be fired or have members of her family believe she had tarnished their name? As Ronson speculates, all of this sideline commentary is making people scared of expression. And, perhaps, worse, it’s making us boring.

Ronson is a bit over-the-top when he says, “Right now the ideologues are winning, and they’re creating a stage for constant, artificial high dramas.” But, it is scary stuff, really, and will make you consider your next Facebook post. And not only that, Ronson’s angle is helpful for contextualizing the public shaming that takes place daily. We’ve recently seen Trevor Noah and Bernie Sanders dragged through the muck and we’ll likely see the same thing happen to someone else today or tomorrow. Ronson wants to call a ceasefire and it is tempting to join him in waving the white flag of civil discourse.

Will the Gospel of Ronson spark mass conversion? That depends on whether or not decency can go viral. Ronson seems to think it can. Good for him.