Ronson’s new book is all about being afraid… being very afraid… of social media and trolls

Terrance Gavan – Blogger, Raconteur and Crap Journalist
A tweet that shamed Ms. Sacco out of a job and out of her mind.

A tweet that shamed Ms. Sacco out of a job and out of her mind.

Have you ever tweeted something so ridiculously ironic that you were sure that there was no one, anywhere, who could possibly misconstrue its contents? Go ahead. I’ll let you ponder on that for a momento. Have a coffee. Go check your feed.

Now that you’ve had some time. I’ll let you in on a little secret. It’s a trick question. If you are a true hard-boiled Twitter user, you, like me, probably expect too much from your followers. You give them too much credit. Or you think that they must know you… must know of your penchant for overstatement or your commitment to getting a leg over on your audience. Irony, or the joke, or the comment is only funny if the people reading it, y’know, realize that you’re not a big fat racist, or cruel manipulative bastard.

The premise of Jon Ronson’s new bestseller – So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed – centers around such lunacy. The naïvete of most Twittijits extends beyond sublime. We think that we are immune to the vagaries of the medium. It is as if people had never read my countryman, Marshall McLuhan, and what he had to say about crazy. What he said way back before most of you were born was: The medium is the message.

If you don’t get it – remember that McLuhan, the great Canadian intellectual lived between 1911 and 1980 – I’ll elucidate, by detailing one of Ronson’s subjects, one of the shamed that he interviewed for his book. Her name is Justine Sacco and she was a PR publicist for a New York firm. From the New York Times:

As she made the long journey from New York to South Africa, to visit family during the holidays in 2013, Justine Sacco, 30 years old and the senior director of corporate communications at IAC, began tweeting acerbic little jokes about the indignities of travel. There was one about a fellow passenger on the flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport:

“ ‘Weird German Dude: You’re in First Class. It’s 2014. Get some deodorant.’ — Inner monologue as I inhale BO. Thank God for pharmaceuticals.”

Then, during her layover at Heathrow:

“Chilly — cucumber sandwiches — bad teeth. Back in London!”

And on Dec. 20, before the final leg of her trip to Cape Town:

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

She chuckled to herself as she pressed send on this last one, then wandered around Heathrow’s international terminal for half an hour, sporadically checking her phone. No one replied, which didn’t surprise her. She had only 170 Twitter followers.

She got off the plane several hours later and her life as she knew it had ended. One of her 170 followers gave the tweet to a fellow from Daily beast who had a lot more followers. he knew nothing about Justine. He had no idea that she was being ironic. He simply, and this is the crux of Ronson’s book, fed her to the wolves. And they devoured her. She lost her job. The flight took 11 hours and as she slept her life disappeared into troll hell.

Here are three tweets that came when everyone realized that Justine was on a plane with her phone off.

“All I want for Christmas is to see @JustineSacco’s face when her plane lands and she checks her inbox/voicemail” and “Oh man, @JustineSacco is going to have the most painful phone-turning-on moment ever when her plane lands” and “We are about to watch this @JustineSacco bitch get fired. In REAL time. Before she even KNOWS she’s getting fired.”

Ronson’s book is filled with stories just like this. If you know Ronson, you’ll realize that he is in fact a master of the passive aggressive skewer. He wrote The Psychopath Test and Men Who Stare at Goats. He writes with a matter-of-fact stream of consciousness so utterly deadpan that it’s hard to ascertain if he actually has feelings for these people or if he is simply recounting, objectively, what happened. Whatever, he is the master of his art.

In this book he does note that the stories scare him. For he himself has unintentionally, or intentionally, launched some of these archaic rituals, simply by setting the story line out there to his own substantial twitter following.

He once had his twitter identity hijacked by an alternate Jon_Ronson. He tracked down the three intellectuals responsible for putting up his alter ego. He did this because he wanted them to take it down. They refused. And he asked them for an interview. They accepted – Oxford and Cambridge twits not being quite as smart as they think they are – and he filmed it and put it up on Twitter.

He wondered what would happen. He needn’t have. So fickle was his fan base that within a day, his followers had set upon the three twits so relentlessly that they were forced to take the Jon_Ronson site down. What we like about this story, which begins the book, is that it is told in a vein of self-deprecating irony, intended to put his bona fides on the table before delving into the topic at hand.

He is writing a book about internet shaming and he begins with the premise that he set up these guys (yes they were twits) to ridicule. Indeed he comes close to admitting that this is his forte as a writer. Allowing weird people to hoist themselves on their own ample petards. It’s why I like Ronson. It’s why people like to read him.

So the tension throughout the book – a great book by the way – is palpable and yes, scary.

He is talking about unintended consequences. About people getting fired. About publicly induced hysteria. About the power of the Internet Troll.

And we are forced to come face to face with our own humanity.

Just like the author.

Teaching moments in this book y’all.

Teaching moments.