“If you’re on that list, you have plenty of time to address this with your loved ones. Also: you’re a creep,” read one tweet. “Men of America, I give you karma,” read another. And a third: “This Ashley Madison leak is going to be fun, so much fun.”
Ronson, the author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, had seen similar scenarios play out many times before, and he knew fun was not on the menu.
“The line I read (from the hackers) was: ‘It’s embarrassing now, but make amends and get over it. You’ll be fine eventually,’ ” the British writer said. “Of course, they were proven to be irresponsible and immature because people started killing themselves.
“The thing is, these hackers aren’t that different from regular people on Twitter. There seems to be a weird view that collateral damage is OK, when you’re fighting a big fight,” he added. “Thirty-seven million people: that’s more collateral damage than you get in wars.
“When,” he continued, “did we all start becoming so brutal?”
That’s the central question asked by Ronson’s book, which deliberately functions as white-knuckle horror for anyone with a social media presence. The non-fiction chronicle is “like The Blair Witch Project,” he quips, “but instead of witches, it’s us.”
Among the shamed: Jonah Lehrer, the pop-science scribe whose life unravelled over a falsified quote; Justine Sacco, a publicist whose joke about AIDS in Africa extinguished her flourishing career; and Lindsey Stone, a charity worker whose disrespectful photo at the Arlington National Cemetery inspired an ultimately effective “Fire Lindsey Stone” Facebook page (and 12,000 likes).
“Every day, there’s a new person to destroy,” Ronson said. “We’re like a Mayan deity who constantly needs new blood to drink to stay alive.
“It’s almost become an addiction,” he added. “A day without a shaming has started to feel like a day treading water or picking fingernails — weird and empty.”
Ronson’s book probes public shaming to its 18th century roots in puritanical New England. Here, he sees a connection to the Ashley Madison scandal, given that adultery was then one of the primary inspirations for public degradation.
Some, of course, have loudly condemned the Ashley Madison hackers and those who delighted in the scandal, similar to how Gawker was publicly shamed for publicly shaming a Condé Nast executive.
That’s not progress either, argues Ronson.
“It’s like all we can think to do is shame the shamers, like a dodgy builder covering cracks, covering shame with shame,” he said.
So, how did we get here? Ronson believes the public shaming revival originated from the idealistic notion that social media could democratize justice.
But, he notes, “you can still believe in social justice without creating an utterly horrific world.”
“Whoever thought young people would have wanted to create such a stressful world for themselves?” he asked.
“Pretty much everyone who’s trending on Twitter is a magnificent hero or a sickening villain,” he added. “We’re constantly trying to define society by these extremes.”
Ronson’s book is cleverly intended to function as self-help for the shamed. So, does he have any advice for the millions unearthed in the Ashley Madison hack?
“Now that it’s died down and Gawker isn’t paying some poor intern to go through 37 million names for celebrities, my guess is, you probably won’t get found out,” he said. “So my first piece of advice is just to shut up about it.
“If your spouse has found out and confronted you,” he continued, “an apology is probably the best bet.”