Ronson recalls virtually interviewing a man who called himself “Hank,” though that wasn’t his real name. In March of 2013, Hank was in the audience at a tech conference in California, making jokes with a friend about a large “dongle”—a hardware device used to connect a computer port to a port on another, smaller device, such as a phone or mp3 player. Earlier, they’d been making even more suggestive jokes using obscure tech lingo.
As Ronson introduces the story of a new shamee, Hank, he describes Hank’s impish but relatively innocuous behavior at a tech conference. Hank’s actions weren’t evil or ill-intended—but he’d still be forced to suffer for a perceived transgression. The fact that Hank wants to use a pseudonym to be interviewed hints at how traumatic this incident will become for him.
Hank noticed the woman sitting in front of him turn around and use her phone to take a picture of the audience. He didn’t think anything of it, but minutes after the picture was taken, a conference organizer approached Hank and his friend and pulled them out of the room to tell them there’d been a complaint about their sexual comments. Hank insisted the two of them hadn’t been targeting anyone and had just been joking around, which seemed to resolve the situation.
Hank was bewildered by the idea that he’d been acting lewdly or provocatively—he and his friend were just passing the time between themselves, but their actions had ramifications that neither of them could have predicted. Someone had perceived their comments as a transgression—and even as a threat. This passage also shows how untethered social media shamings are from traditional avenues of punishment. A conference organizer, when alerted to the men’s behavior, pulled them out and decided that they didn’t need to face severe consequences for their actions—just a reprimand. But the social media mob that would soon pile on would be much less judicious, as there was no authority figure or grievance process that could determine when enough is enough.
But when Hank and his friend looked at Twitter later that afternoon, they saw that the woman sitting in front of them had taken a picture of them, uploaded it to her feed, and called them out for making lewd jokes right behind her. The tweet didn’t get much traction, though, so Hank put it out of his mind. The next day, the tweeter—a Black Jewish woman named Adria Richards—published a blog post detailing how, in the presence of a large crowd, the men felt anonymous and free to make lewd jokes. She referred to the theory of “de-individuation.” That afternoon, Hank’s boss called him into his office—Hank was fired.
Adria Richards sought to call out Hank and his friend for a transgression: making inappropriate jokes in a public space, without much thought to the feelings of anyone who was sitting around them. It’s certainly a valid critique, as the men clearly made her feel uncomfortable. But the consequences for Hank and his friend’s behavior at the conference (a simple reprimand) escalated when he quickly lost his job, seemingly because Adria Richards had continued to push the issue in a public way, which made Hank a liability to the company. This raises the question of whether the punishment for someone’s transgression should be tied to how public that transgression becomes. When this was a relatively private matter, a simple reprimand sufficed, but as soon as it became more public, Hank’s head had to roll. The difference was not the transgression itself, but the amount of attention it attracted.
That night, Hank posted a short apology online. He said that while he was sorry for making Richards uncomfortable, her posts had cost him his job—and now, he had to find a new way of supporting his three children. Richards called Hank’s former company and pressured them to make Hank remove that portion of his statement.
Hank wanted to offer a genuine apology—but he also wanted the internet to consider whether the consequences for his behavior outweighed the severity of his transgression. However, Richards seemed to consider that part of his statement inappropriate or unfair, which put Hank into a bind. It wouldn’t be good for him to continue to anger Richards, but he also wanted to be able to defend himself.
Ronson reached out to Richards for an interview, and she reluctantly agreed to meet with him. She told him that Hank and his friend’s jokes had made her feel that she was in danger. While Ronson pushed back against the idea that Adria felt she was in danger in the middle of a large conference, Richards insisted that men—especially white men—can’t presume to know what women of color feel is safe or unsafe. She admitted to having little empathy for Hank having lost his job, and she said that she knew what she was doing by tweeting about him.
While Ronson pushes back against Richards’s sensitivity to Hank’s comments, Richards has a point: as someone who has been marginalized due to her intersecting identities as a Black Jewish woman, Richards experienced the situation differently than a white man likely would have. At the same time, Richards’s utter confidence in the fact that it was morally correct for her to involve the internet in judging Hank’s actions is, in Ronson’s clear estimation, problematic—Hank is a human being, too, even if he was acting in a rude or threatening manner at the conference.
Shortly after Hank posted his statement, he began receiving messages of solidarity online from men’s-rights bloggers who also leveled horrible threats of rape, violence, and murder against Adria Richards. Online trolls crashed her company’s website and servers, calling for her firing. Hours later, she was fired—and she told Ronson that she felt “ashamed” and alone in the wake of their decision.
This passage shows how quickly the tide of a public shaming can turn. Though Richards sought to call out Hank for his behavior, once he suffered certain consequences, another corner of the internet rose up in his defense—and they, too, launched an all-out offensive in the opposite direction. These men’s rights activists successfully shamed Richards—just as she had successfully shamed Hank. This passage introduces how shamings can lead to repetitive, never-ending cycles of shame and violence.
Before meeting with Richards, Ronson posted a message on the website where the vitriol toward her had spun out of control—4chan—asking if anyone involved in her destruction would speak with him. A 21-year-old woman named Mercedes Haefer reached out to him. Mercedes was currently was being sued for her involvement in taking down PayPal as vengeance for their refusal to accept donations to WikiLeaks. Ronson found Haefer to be a “jubilant” troll who loved digital chaos, but after getting to know her better throughout months of emailing back and forth, he began to learn more about her and the online community of which she was a part.
This passage introduces 4chan, a social platform where free speech (and hate speech) reigns supreme. Throughout the book, Ronson interrogates how the social dynamics of the internet are chilling people’s ability to speak freely, although he does not position the culture on 4chan as a good alternative. On places like 4chan, users find amusement and even joy in the most crass or violent forms of free speech—including harassment.
On the internet, Haefer told Ronson, the powerless become powerful. But recent crackdowns on spaces like 4chan had begun to feel like New York’s stop-and-frisk program. Stop-and-frisk was a program that was meant to reduce street crime in the city, but with nearly 1,800 stops each day, and with nine out of ten people stopped found completely innocent, the program quickly drew many critics. The program “degraded and humiliated” people in public, and racial profiling meant that it was overwhelmingly Black and Latino youths who were singled out by the police. And data revealed that violent crime had already been dropping for five years before stop-and-frisk was implemented.
By comparing crackdowns on free speech on the internet to violent stop-and-frisk programs in New York City and beyond, Mercedes Haefer is suggesting that there is an inherent violence to taking away an individual’s right to speak their mind without facing dire social or reputational consequences. Crackdowns, this passage is implying, only hurt—they hardly ever produce any measurable good.
Haefer thought that because public spaces in New York and other parts of the country were becoming unsafe for people who were the targets of programs like stop-and-frisk, people now loitered on the internet. The internet, she suggested, had become the home of the “little guy.” And when people like Hank whom they identified with came under fire, the internet rose up to protect them. As for people like Justine Sacco, Haefer cryptically stated, “some sorts of crimes can only be handled by […] shaming. It’s a different kind of court.”
By suggesting that there are certain internet-related “crimes” that require a “different kind of court,” Mercedes Haefer is acknowledging the outsized power of large groups of people who conduct public shamings on the internet. In the real world, she’s implying, it's harder for there to be consequences for transgressions large and small—but the internet allows for transgressions to be punished in unique ways that she feels are perfectly fair and appropriate.
Ronson asked Haefer why online shamings were so often misogynistic and violent. Mercedes claimed that places like 4chan aimed to “degrade the target,” and for women the highest degradation was rape (which attacked their femininity), whereas for men, the highest degradation was having their ability to support their families taken away (which attacked their masculinity).
This passage illustrates how heavily gendered public shamings are. Depending on the gender of the shamee, the attacks they’ll face are vastly different—and women often face more violence than men do.
While Hank told Ronson that he felt nobody deserved to go through what Adria Richards went through, Richards told Ronson that she believed Hank’s complaint about losing his job was what fired up the hate groups that came after her, and that his actions alone resulted in his getting fired in the first place. Ronson asked Hank how his life had changed since the incident, and he said that he’d begun to distance himself from female developers. Richards, meanwhile, still hadn’t found a new job.
The fact that Hank was able to find a new job so quickly after his public shaming (while Richards still struggled to secure employment a long time after her own) is emblematic of the unequal consequences that men and women face after being shamed. It also seems that this shaming had an unintended effect on Hank: rather than making him more empathetic to the experiences of women in a male-dominated field, he began to avoid women altogether, presumably to prevent another incident like the one that got him shamed. This shows how public shamings have unpredictable and sometimes negative results—they’re not turning people into virtuous, empathetic citizens, but rather they’re whipping up shame and resentment and creating perverse behavioral incentives like avoiding women.
Ronson himself had shamed a lot of people on the internet, but now he couldn’t remember most of them. He did remember being the first person to alert the Twitterverse to a column written by A.A. Gill about shooting a baboon on safari to “get a sense of what it might be like to kill someone.” Ronson now admits that he was keeping a careful eye on Gill’s writing because Gill always gave Ronson’s television documentaries bad reviews. Within minutes, Ronson was able to turn the internet against Gill. People accused him of being a bully, but Ronson writes that he himself was bullied horribly in school, and that he is always conscious of how terrible it is to be tormented.
Here, Ronson explores his own motives for participating in a public shaming. For him, this actually wasn’t driven by a desire to be or seem virtuous, even if he genuinely felt the column was offensive. Instead, Ronson led a shaming because he had a personal grudge against the person he shamed, and he was watching carefully for that person to misstep so he could punish him for giving Ronson’s work bad reviews. So the shaming had nothing to do with morality or proper behavior; it was a personal grudge disguised as moral outrage, a petty attempt to punish someone for their criticism of Ronson. At the time, Ronson told himself that he wasn’t being a bully, but he seems to be reconsidering this assessment now. In his own way, Ronson was caught in a cycle of needing to shame others as a result of his own shame, as he was presumably embarrassed by the bad reviews.
Everyone in the Hank and Adria Richards story, Ronson realized, thought they were doing something good. But in today’s world, shaming is punished with more shaming. And all shamers themselves are always operating from a place of shame. Ronson realized that he had a new directive: to write a book that could help people find a way out of their shame.
This passage, once again, highlights how dangerous cycles of shame and trauma can be. Ronson began to understand that the only way to deal with the out-of-control nature of contemporary public shamings was to break the cycle at the root by rejecting shame entirely.