In early January of 2012, British journalist Jon Ronson noticed that someone was impersonating him on Twitter. The user’s handle was @Jon_Ronson, and they were using a picture of Ronson as their own. The tweets were nonsensical, but often profane and humiliating. The account only had 20 followers—but some were people Ronson knew in real life, and he was concerned that people would soon begin to think that the embarrassing tweets were his own.
Right away, it’s clear that Jon Ronson is very invested in his internet presence—in the first few lines of the book, he introduces his favored social media platform and one of the book’s central symbols: Twitter. Twitter will, over the course of the book, emerge as a symbol of how disjointed modern society is. Though people can reach out to one another faster than ever before, constantly being in touch isn’t necessarily communicating productively. This passage shows that while the @Jon_Ronson account appeared to be contributing something to the internet, it was actually just nonsense. Right away, Ronson illustrates the bizarre and humiliating nature of life on the internet.
Ronson began doing some research on the internet. He found that a young man named Luke Robert Mason had commented on a short video Ronson had made about spambots. Mason claimed to have built Ronson his “very own infomorph,” and he linked to the @Jon_Ronson handle. Ronson was relieved to know that the account was just a spambot, but he was still determined to get Mason to take the account down. When he tweeted at Mason and asked him to remove the spambot, though, Mason became defensive. Mason insisted that the infomorph wasn’t taking Ronson’s identity—it was just repurposing data. The spambot continued tweeting about 20 times a day and gaining followers. Ronson felt increasingly “powerless and sullied.”
When Ronson realized that the @Jon_Ronson account was a spambot—a program that’s written to recycle and reshuffle language from tweets or internet posts that already exist—his shame decreased slightly. He realized someone wasn’t targeting him expressly in order to humiliate him—but that didn’t lessen his desire to see the account taken down. This illustrates that the internet—a tool meant to empower people to gain access to information, form relationships, and define themselves in new ways—can often be a thing that strips people of their power and leaves them feeling embarrassed.
Ronson reached out to Mason once again, this time asking if they could meet in real life. He offered to film the encounter and put it on YouTube. Mason was excited to meet up and explain the “philosophy” behind the spambot. On the day of the meeting, in central London, Mason arrived with two other men—colleagues of his from Warwick University. All three men introduced themselves as credentialed internet researchers, technologists, and lecturers on social phenomena. As Ronson began talking with the men, they accused him of attempting to control them psychologically. Ronson suggested that they were the ones trying to control him for the purposes of an academic experiment.
This passage shows how a problem that started on the internet—a space that is sometimes regarded as existing somewhat outside of or parallel to reality—quickly became an intense, real-world issue for Ronson. While the researchers’ adamantly believed that what they were doing was good and productive, Ronson felt violated and ashamed. This establishes a central dynamic of the book: many people online believe they’re doing something good when in fact they’re hurting another person, sometimes profoundly, without being able to see their suffering.
Ronson asked the men to take the spambot down, but they heckled him about his desperate attempts to maintain an online “brand” by sidelining their own experiment. The conversation continued in circles for over an hour. The researchers kept asking Ronson if he’d like the spambot to sound more or less like him, even as Ronson insisted that what he wanted was for it to stop existing entirely. The men accused Ronson of feeling threatened. Ronson accused them of being “troll[s].”
While the internet might seem like a diversion that doesn’t matter in “real” life, it’s in fact increasingly becoming intertwined with people’s offline lives. The researchers’ disdain for Ronson’s attachment to how he appeared to others on the internet was palpable throughout their discussion—but Ronson took life on the internet seriously, and he used language that originated on the internet (such as “troll”) to try to sway the researchers. It’s also significant to note that the researchers believed their own intentions in creating the spambot to be good and worthy—but like so many well-intentioned internet endeavors, that goodness was entirely subjective.
The meeting ended without any clear resolution, but Ronson uploaded the video to YouTube anyway. Comments supporting Ronson immediately began pouring in. Commenters were excoriating the “manipulative assholes” behind the spambot and urging Ronson to “destroy them.” Ronson began feeling happy and relieved—victorious, even. But as the comments on the video continued to escalate in terms of anger, vitriol, and threats against the internet researchers’ lives, Ronson grew slightly worried.
This passage is important because it contains the book’s first internet pile-on or social media shaming. This incident is the main inciting factor in Ronson’s desire to examine why internet mobs use such hostile language and experience a thirst for destruction when they rally together to shame a person or change their behavior.
Within a few days, the academics took down the spambot—they had been “shamed into acquiescence.” They wrote an online article detailing the purposes of their experiment—to highlight the oppressiveness of internet algorithms—and lamenting its premature end. But Ronson felt the story had a perfect ending: he’d won.
Here, a social media shaming has finally made the researchers stop their experiment, even though Jon Ronson having a personal, meeting with them didn’t change their minds. In this case, a social media shaming was more effective than a face-to-face appeal to empathy, which speaks to the chilling power of social media mobs. This time, the shaming worked in Ronson’s favor, but the incident also showed him how frightening it could be to end up on the wrong side of a social media shaming.
Ronson began to think about other recent social media shamings he’d seen online and even partaken in. When a columnist for the Daily Mail wrote a homophobic article about the death of a gay pop star, the internet rose up against her—and several major advertisers revoked their banners from the Mail’s website. Ronson recalls the incident as a good time for internet users. Through social media, people rallied against bigoted media personalities and crowdfunded in support of issues they cared about. Together, people on the internet brought down “giants” who transgressed against their values through a new kind of weapon: online shaming.
While social media shamings often use violent language and can cause great emotional harm, there is a precedent for social media shamings bringing some measure of justice into the world. When used for truly good intentions—that is, against people or institutions who are genuinely powerful and have done genuine wrong—social media shamings can bring real and important change. But also, Ronson is calling attention here to something crucial: that those who participate in shamings are not necessarily experiencing them as a somber and regrettable moment in which they have to cause someone pain for the greater good. Instead, they’re often seeing shamings as a source of amusement and group bonding. Seeing shamings as a “good time” can reinforce the instinct to keep shaming, even in contexts when it’s ethically dubious.
Ronson realized that he was living at the beginning of “a great renaissance of public shaming.” Public punishments had been phased out of U.K. and U.S. societies in the mid-1830s—but now, they seemed to be back and more powerful than ever before. Ronson decided that the next time a great public shaming began to unfold, he’d put himself in the mix, investigate the shaming up close, and chronicle whether it was effective or not in terms of righting wrongs. Just 12 weeks later, Ronson would find the shaming he was looking for.
In this passage, Ronson clarifies his desire to study social media shamings in order to place them in the context of the larger history of public shamings. Ronson was curious about where, exactly, social media shamings had come from and why they were so powerful.