For the first time in 180 years, the general public has a say in what punishments are meted out during public shamings. Ronson himself has vowed to stay out of the “ecstatic” public shamings that still take place on the internet. While he misses some of the “fun,” he compares the change to becoming a vegetarian years earlier: he still missed steak, but not enough to ignore what he knew about slaughterhouses.
By highlighting how the ruckus surrounding an online public shaming can appear (or feel) joyous and hedonistic for those participating in the pile-on, Ronson is suggesting that public shamings, at this point, are more for the benefit of the shamers than for the greater public good. His divestment from public shamings shows that his research changed his point of view on the topic entirely. His comparison of the social media machine to a “slaughterhouse” illustrates his contempt for the brutality and inhumanity of many corners of the internet.
The internet, Micahel Fertik asserted in an earlier conversation with Ronson, is controlled by companies, so Google makes money off of popular searches. During Justine Sacco’s public shaming, Ronson was able to calculate, Google likely made somewhere between $120,000 and $450,000 dollars off of her name, which was suddenly a “high-yield” search term. And those who did the annihilating and the compulsive searching were essentially “unpaid interns,” helping Google profit off one woman’s suffering.
This anecdote further strengthens Ronson’s argument that people should divest entirely from the public shaming machine. By participating in pile-ons, ordinary people are just making money for big corporations—and often destroying lives in the process—for a few minutes of a feeling of participating in a group event.
After years of research, Ronson now believes that online shaming is so merciless because of a psychological phenomenon known as feedback loops. This phenomenon was measured during an experiment using YourSpeed signs in a traffic-calming scheme in California in the early 2000s. These signs, posted under speed limit markers, showed drivers the speed at which they were traveling—and by getting instant real-time feedback for a behavior, drivers altered their actions and reduced their speed. A feedback loop happens in the blink of an eye.
By exploring how feedback loops instantaneously discourage (or reinforce) certain behaviors, Ronson shows how the rapid pace of the internet almost algorithmically rewards certain kinds of responses to certain kinds of issues. Joining a Twitter pile-on in which one’s opinion aligns with the opinions of others is an example of a feedback loop: an opinion that gels with the status quo is rewarded, so more people join in, and soon, the system is out of control.
The monumental power of a feedback loop can be used for good, as with YourSpeed signs, or for ill purposes, as with the “giant echo chambers” of vitriol and violent rhetoric that emerge on social media channels. Being congratulated for opinions that reflect those of the crowd is a kind of emotional reward, and people repeat that behavior ad infinitum. People can get trapped in these feedback loops, ultimately defining what’s normal by tearing apart anyone who exists beyond the boundaries of acceptable or good behavior.
When everyone has the same opinion—and when feedback loops just proliferate and perpetuate that opinion—the internet is empty of nuance or real debate. People might be more hesitant to offer opinions that differ from the mainstream for fear of being shamed, ridiculed, or excluded. And so through the process of feedback loops, social media flattens nuanced discourse and chills people’s desire to voice their thoughts and opinions.