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During a tech developers’ conference, two men in the audience idly spin com­puter jargon into sexual innuendo. One man mentions “a really big dongle”. Later, he remembers talking at not “even conversation-level volume”. The exchange is loud enough, however, for a woman nearby to take his picture, which she then tweets alongside a précis of his comments. She is especially offended because the remarks coincide with a presentation encouraging women into the industry. Afterwards, she blogs about the incident and the “dongle” man is fired. He writes contritely on a discussion board, supporting the woman but rueing his lost job. The woman starts receiving death threats, her employer’s website is hacked and crashes, and then she is fired.

Carnage of this kind piles up in Jon Ronson’s latest book, which explores the digitisation of shame and shaming. A work of original, inspired journalism, it considers the complex dynamics between those who shame and those who are shamed, both of whom can become the focus of social media’s grotesque, disproportionate judgments. He evokes shame’s strange ambiguities as a weapon of both social improvement and sadism, tracing the ways in which our individual morality is tested by the collective urge to shame. In this account of how we use the internet unofficially to police one another, shame isn’t so much a feeling as a crime scene. Everyone is a suspect; everyone is a victim. Ronson’s search to understand shame’s modern guises becomes a kind of whodunnit.

Publicity for So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed describes it as “powerful and hilarious”, though in truth the comic is hardly its dominant mode. The path is strewn with ruined lives, suicides and suicidal thoughts. Ronson admits the interviews left him “nervous and depressed”. He speaks to Ted Poe, a Texan judge turned politician who for years dispensed eccentric and controversial forms of real-world public shaming as punishments. During the conversation, Ronson suggests to Poe that online shamers, with their casual, offhand ability to destroy careers and peace of mind and then move on, “are more frightening” than this “fearsome” judge had ever been. Poe reclines in his seat and replies, “much more frightening”. For one young woman, her name tethered online to one ill-judged photograph, “the terror was always there”.

Ronson implicates himself in the glee of social media shamings, confessing to a sense of let-down on those quiet Twitter days, with no one to haul up and make accountable, no chance to improve collective standards of virtue. He describes his own embroilment in online shaming as originating in a “weird dark well”, and on two occasions he figures shame as an indiscriminate, monstrous invader that “snakes” under people’s skin.

Jennifer Jacquet, a social scientist based at New York University, partly illuminates this dark well by citing a neurological basis for our compulsion to shame. “Studies show that humans find satisfaction in the punishment of norm violators,” writes Jacquet in Is Shame Necessary?, her diligent examination of the phenomenon and its eco-political uses. As Jacquet distinguishes, while we can incubate guilt on our own, shame depends on our awareness of others. It is therefore unsurprising that two books on the subject are appearing now, with digital technologies intensifying the feeling that we are being observed.

Justine Sacco, who was fired after writing an offensive tweet

Jacquet sees shame as a potent tool against corporate irresponsibility. Our biggest problems as a species — poverty, climate change — need to be solved communally through pressuring both our policy making institutions and big businesses. Collective, organised disapproval and approbation is one way of exerting this pressure.

However, Jacquet’s activism and Ronson’s unease are linked. The same corporate face is being saved when a supermarket is shamed into stocking ethically sourced fish as when one of Ronson’s “shamees” is fired. Both cases involve a consumerist ethos that seeks to protect the brand from taint. In other words, Jacquet’s strategy of effective shaming relies on the same values that create the personal havoc and tragedy experienced by Ronson’s case studies. The idea that an employee is, in all aspects of their lives, the moral representative of their employer is a dangerous one for any worker living under the scrutiny of digital life. Meanwhile, Ronson illustrates the amorality of corporate structures, estimating that Google made $120,000 in advertising revenue from people searching the name of one publicly disgraced woman. Shame is its own lucrative online industry.

For Jacquet, one aspect of effective, ethical shaming is that those “who are exposed are given a chance to reintegrate with the group”. But as Ronson’s humiliated, isolated interviewees attest, a problem of online shaming is that the group that shamed them is a temporary confederacy, corralled briefly by righteous indignation and schadenfreude. It does not follow the stages of reintegration in Jacquet’s scheme, disbanding before it can bestow “honour to reward changes in behaviour”. None of Ronson’s main interviewees were rehired by the company that fired them, once the depersonalised cyber-shaming apparatus had set its sights elsewhere. Moreover, their transgressive acts are digitally preserved as brutal synecdoches of their character.

In both books, Rosa Parks appears as the embodiment of moral resistance and righteous shaming. But in each there is another figure, epitomising jubilant retribution. Jacquet invokes Lewis Carroll’s volatile, bloodthirsty Queen of Hearts, while a journalist friend of Ronson, who tellingly didn’t want to be named, describes social media as “an unpredictable, angry, unbalanced parent”. Ultimately, Ronson refuses to externalise this phantom. For him the solution to the whodunnit is uncomfortable but clear, a perversion of the digital age’s connectivity. The answer can be heard in every grimly excited click, whispered in every careless fanning of the digital flames: we did it.

Laurence Scott’s ‘The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World’ is published by Heinemann in June

Jon Ronson will be speaking at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival on Saturday March 21. www.oxfordliteraryfestival.org

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