In an afterword written for the paperback edition of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson revisits the initial hardback release of the book in March of 2015. In December of 2014, Ronson’s publisher urged him to strap in for a bumpy year. In January, the New York Times Magazine offered to run an excerpt from the book focusing on Justine Sacco’s story—but when Ronson reached out to Sacco again, she admitted that she regretted speaking to him in the first place because of the renewed publicity her story would earn as a result of the book’s publication. But at the same time, Sacco had found a new perspective: she no longer felt she had anything to prove.
Even though Justine Sacco feared being trapped in a cycle of never-ending public shame, she’d begun to realize that her story could potentially be used to create real change both online and in the real world. Sacco wasn’t going to let her public shaming define her any longer: she wanted to reclaim the narrative and call attention to the inhumanity of online public shamings.
After the excerpt came out, Sacco got in touch with Ronson to let him know she’d received many letters and emails expressing support and commending her for how she handled her public shaming. She thanked Ronson for telling her story, but she asked him to get the Times to revise the headline “How One Tweet Destroyed Justine Sacco’s Life.” Sacco insisted her life hadn’t been destroyed. Ronson pushed for a change, and the headline was revised to “How One Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life.”
Sacco’s response to Ronson here is significant; it shows that she was finally learning to take control of her own narrative and push back against the shame machine. Rather than standing silently by while a major media outlet claimed her life had been destroyed, Sacco stood up for her own resilience in the face of an online mob. While her shaming did define her life for a long time, her response to the article showed that she was ready to lead a new era in the pushback to public shamings.
Ronson’s excerpt helped begin a new conversation about Twitter-shaming; many journalists referred to the article as a turning point in the conversation about contemporary public shamings. Others, however, suggested that many people—especially women of color in less advantageous positions than Sacco—had suffered worse than she had. But Ronson picked Sacco’s story because it was mainstream; the online mob tearing her apart consisted of people who considered themselves righteous, and many of them were members of the mainstream media. Ronson was frustrated that many readers still couldn’t understand the gravity of Sacco’s shaming.
Even though Ronson wrote an article that appeared in a mainstream media outlet—and was in fact directed at many members of the mainstream media—people still had trouble recognizing the fact that when it came to public shamings, intent didn’t matter—the ruthlessness of the shaming rarely matched the severity of the transgression being shamed. People’s unwillingness to understand this core fact shows that many still underestimate the impact a public shaming can have on a person’s life. It also suggests that may people are not willing to look the truth in the face, because it would mean they’d have to reimagine how they use the internet and why.
As the Times excerpt spread and found more readership, Ronson received supportive messages and reviews, but he also had many people “divebomb” him on the internet, accusing him of being a racist and an advocate of internet censorship. Ronson decided to stay out of the discourse and not make any kind of tweet or public statement about the intentions behind the book. But Ronson’s silence led people to claim that he was a misogynist for failing to respond to his female followers’ messages.
This passage shows that even when Ronson stepped away from the internet discourse surrounding his writing, he was still shamed. This strengthens Ronson’s argument that remaining silent to avoid being shamed is a useless and harmful tactic: if the internet machine wants to shame someone, they’re going to do it no matter what and use anything they can in service of that shaming.
When a train crashed in Philadelphia in early 2014, killing eight people and injuring more than 200, a survivor who tweeted about wanting to recover her violin from one of the cars became the target of an internet mob. She was shamed, Ronson asserts, because she was perceived to have misused her privilege as a survivor. But at the same time, others who hadn’t been in her situation were now judging her.
This passage illustrates that the internet is increasingly unable to distinguish between insensitive remarks and serious transgressions. It also shows that women, especially, are victims of public shamings that are far harsher and more punitive than their perceived transgressions deserve.
Over the course of the next several months, Ronson noticed that Twitter shamings became more prevalent rather than less common. From scientists who were shamed for wearing clothing that was perceived to have misogynistic imagery on it to a Minnesota dentist who killed Cecil, a lion living on a protected preserve in Zimbabwe, for sport, to an ESPN reporter who excoriated a parking garage attendant for calling for her car to be towed, these shamings became the default response to any behavior people didn’t like. Ronson figured he’d soon get his own shaming.
With so many public shamings proliferating across the internet—some, in Ronson’s opinion, more justified than others—he began to believe that statistically it was only a matter of time before he was a casualty. This shows that Ronson has become in many ways desensitized to the process of social media shaming. He knew that with so many shame cycles starting up each day, it would be difficult to do much to stop them—the internet seemed unilaterally focused on destroying anyone whose behavior jarred against the status quo.
Ronson looked back on his discussion in 2014 with Mercedes Haefer from 4chan, and he found it affecting. When he wrote about that conversation in an early draft of the book, he made a coy joke about his own privilege: he wrote that he couldn’t imagine many things that were worse than being fired. In August of 2014, when advance uncorrected copies of the book went out into the world for industry professionals’ perusal, Ronson’s British editor forwarded him an early review that criticized the line. She urged him to cut it, and he did.
This passage shows that Ronson had to really watch his words as he wrote about sensitive issues concerning shame, gender, and violence. His humorous writing style was, in some places, detracting from the intense seriousness surrounding issues of shame, gender, and violence on social media. He wanted to do these sensitive topics justice, so he tried to decenter himself and focus on the message at hand.
In March 2015, Ronson’s book tour began—some of the Q&A events were intense, and he dealt with a number of hecklers and trolls in the audiences of his readings. Many people felt Ronson’s book focused too much on Twitter, which they dismissed as a “toy”—but Ronson hadn’t set out to tell a story about Twitter. He wanted to talk about the intersection of media, public opinion, and the impulse to shame.
Many of Ronson’s readers weren’t able to see his evaluation of online public shamings as rigorous. Even after reading the book, they still didn’t understand how serious the internet’s public shaming cycles were. By flattening any chance for a nuanced discourse around Twitter and other social media platforms’ destructive potential, Ronson’s readers were missing the point of all his research.
Just before a radio appearance in Madison, Wisconsin, Ronson checked Twitter briefly, and he saw that a freelance journalist had posted the line he’d cut from an earlier draft of the book. People—women, especially—were beginning to dogpile on Ronson. Ronson tweeted back that the line was from an uncorrected copy not meant to be quoted, and soon the mob turned against the journalist. Ronson tweeted about how his “mini-shaming” had impacted his mood and mental health, hoping to draw attention to the very topic discussed in his book, but people tweeted at him to “stop whining.”
Even though Ronson had taken a slightly confusing and potentially offensive line out of the published version of his book, the shame machine was still seeking to punish him for having once expressed—and then cut out—an opinion that ran counter to the status quo. The failure of Ronson’s attempt to point out the fact that the internet had proven one of his book’s major theses for him shows that social media shamings are inherently unnuanced, and that oftentimes the people behind them are resistant to reflection or self-evaluation.
Weeks after Ronson’s mini-shaming, an Israeli government clerk was accused of anti-Black racism, and his story went viral online. He wrote a suicide note, posted it to Facebook, and shot himself. The woman who had complained online about the clerk issued a statement saying that she wished she’d kept silent. The internet turned against her nonetheless.
This passage shows that the shame cycle isn’t just humiliating—it’s violent, and its consequences are life-threatening. The person who takes up the cause of a public shaming might find themselves at the center of one the next day—and so Ronson suggests through this anecdote that people need to deeply consider the consequences of public shamings before deciding to begin them.
Ronson became unable to hold back from leaping into the fray during public shamings on the internet. In June of 2015, Rachel Dolezal, a white woman, was exposed for having faked a Black identity and risen to power in academia and her local NAACP chapter. Disgusted by the immediate, violent vitriol emerging against Dolezal, Ronson tweeted that he felt sorry for her and that the world was judging her without knowing anything about her. When he checked his account hours later, he was being shamed and threatened. Ronson quit Twitter for a little while—but soon, he migrated back.
This passage shows how Ronson’s years of research into the phenomenon of public shamings led him to feel a lot of sympathy for those who were subjected to public shamings—no matter their transgression. Ronson came to believe that the public shaming process was inhumane, and that no one should be subjected to such hatred—but implying that someone didn’t deserve to be shamed ended up trapping Ronson himself inside a cycle of shame and vitriol. This shows that the internet’s thirst for shame is, perhaps, beyond repair—when a mob of millions gets involved, there’s no way to look carefully and critically at a nuanced situation.
One of Ronson’s acquaintances told him he should have included, in the original draft of the book, a set of rules about which shamings were okay and which weren’t. Now, Ronson writes that there is one positive way social media has been used to shame people: as videos of police brutality across the U.S. began to emerge in 2014 and 2015, Ronson felt, people were using social media to contribute to a new civil rights battleground. Still, Ronson fears most people would prefer to defend ideology over human beings—and that this has created a dual-poled judgement system in which people are either villains or heroes.
Ronson uses this passage to clarify that there are certain individuals and institutions that need to be shamed. Shame is a powerful agent of change, Ronson’s research has shown—and it can be used to positive effect. But in order for public shamings to become useful, everyone needs to reframe how public shamings are used so that they’re actually effective in calling out wrongs.
Someone who lives a good and ethical life, Ronson asserts, can still be taken down for wording a tweet the wrong way. Human beings exist in gray areas—areas that the internet doesn’t have the nuance to process. Ronson urges his readers to stick up for those who are being shamed. Social media has given a voice to the voiceless, and if voicelessness once more becomes the only way to survive, the world is going to become a very dark place.
In the final lines of the book, Ronson offers up his biggest takeaway from his journey into the heart of public shamings. He believes that shame does indeed have the power to dictate how people express themselves and interact with others—and that humanity as a whole must learn to reject shame. Otherwise, the “voicelessness” of those who trod on eggshells in their public and private lives will set a dangerous new precedent in terms of access to free speech, open public discourse, and individual privacy.