For millennia, man has put his foot in his mouth. Twitter didn't invent the inappropriate joke and employees have ranted about their bosses long before Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook.
Nearly two centuries ago, public shaming (at least in the way of physical punishment) went the way of the Dodo. That's not to say that one's ill-advised private remarks wouldn't occasionally find much larger audiences and bite one in the ass. They would. Networks like TMZ and E! are relatively new advents, but they don't represent fundamentally new trends. The press have long covered salacious and newsworthy events related to existing celebrities, athletes, politicians, and their ilk. However, a poorly-worded wisecrack probably wouldn't get Joan Q. Public fired from her job and mar her public reputation for the rest of life.
Of course, this is changing. Such is the premise behind the new book from Jon Ronson, So You've Been Publicly Shamed. As the recent cases of Lindsay Stone, Justine Sacco, "Dongle Joke" Guy, and others manifest, public shaming is back in a big way, although not the physical kind. And we had better pay attention. After all, a failed attempt at humor might result in our receiving thousands of death threats.
Thanks to social media, Google's excellent memory, the Internet, and smartphones, lapses in judgment and overshares from anonymous folks can quickly unleash the power and vitriol of social-media mobs. Today, technology and new cultural mores have removed much of the friction associated with saying or doing something stupid, ethically questionable, or downright offensive. Tweet whatever you like, but understand that there may be consequences. Dire ones.
I've enjoyed a few of Ronson's other texts, but his latest struck a particular nerve with me. I've long been fascinated with how the lines between work and leisure have blurred over the last decade or so, a topic covered in Message Not Received.
His is no anti-technology screed. With a introspective and often funny lens, he tracks down those whose blunders have exploded in the public eye. Ronson finds the humanity in oft-criticized examples of what not to do without letting them off the hook. His interview with admitted plagiarist Jonah Lehrer is particularly insightful.
Ronson doesn't take the high road. He cops to mistakes of his own. Nor is he afraid to question the veracity of his interviewers' claims. So You've Been Publicly Shamed is insightful, well-researched, and important text about how we react to others' poor decisions. Our reactions don't just say something about them. They say something about us.
Rating: 5/5 stars
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book via the publisher.
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