Jon Ronson

So You've Been Publicly Shamed

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James Gilligan’s Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, published by Vintage in 1997
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formally known as @themanwhofell - helped me remember how Twitter mutated from a place of unselfconscious honesty into somewhere more anxiety-inducing. Greg is not on Twitter any more. His final tweet, posted on 10 May 2012, read: ‘Twitter is no place for a human being.‘ Which I think is pessimistic. I still love the place. Although I’ve never been shamed on it. Although neither had he. That line about how we don’t feel accountable during a shaming because ‘a snowflake never feels responsible for the avalanche’ came from Jonathan Bullock. My thanks to him
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and Ian Cutler’s self-published memoir, The Camera Assassin III: Confessions of a Gutter Press Photojournalist, which is available for free on his website - www.cameraassassin.co.uk
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‘Feedback is an engineering principle,’ Adam’s email to me ended. ‘And all engineering is devoted to trying to keep the thing you are building stable.’
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‘I suddenly feel with social media like I’m tiptoeing around an unpredictable, angry, unbalanced parent who might strike out at any moment,’ he said. ‘It’s horrible.’

He didn’t want me to name him, he said, in case it sparked something off.

We see ourselves as nonconformist, but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age.

‘Look!’ we’re saying. ‘WE’RE normal! THIS is the average!’

We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside of it
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‘I remember driving by it,’ he said. ‘And I slowed down. I knew there was no camera in it taking my picture. Yet I slowed down. I just went, “Wow! This really does work!”’

In test after test the results came back the same. People did slow down - by an average of 14 per cent. And they stayed slowed down for miles down the road.

‘So why do they work?’ I asked Scott.

His reply surprised me. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I really don’t know. I … Yeah. I don’t know.’

Scott explained that, being a tech person, he was more interested in the radar and the casing and the light bulbs than in the psychology. But during the past decade the mystery has galvanized social psychologists. And their conclusion: feedback loops.

Feedback loops. You exhibit some type of behaviour (you drive at 27 mph in a 25 mph zone). You get instant realtime feedback for it (the sign tells you you’re driving at 27 mph). You decide whether or not to change your behaviour as a result of the feedback (you lower your speed to 25 mph). You get instant feedback for that decision too (the sign tells you you’re driving at 25 mph now. Some signs flash up a smiley-face emoticon to congratulate you). And it all happens in a flash of an eye - in the few moments it takes you to drive past the Your Speed sign.
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In Goetz’s Wired magazine story - ‘Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops’ - he calls them ‘a profoundly effective tool for changing behaviour’. And I’m all for people slowing down in school zones. But maybe in other ways feedback loops are leading to a world we only think we want. Maybe - as my friend the documentary maker Adam Curtis emailed me - they’re turning social media into ‘a giant echo chamber where what we believe is constantly reinforced by people who believe the same thing’
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That means they’re engaged. If interest in Justine were sufficient to encourage users to stay online for more time than they would otherwise, this would have directly resulted in Google making more advertising revenue. Google has the informal corporate motto of “don’t be evil”, but they make money when anything happens online, even the bad stuff.’
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I kept remembering something Michael Fertik had said to me at the Village Pub in Woodside. ‘The biggest lie,’ he said, ‘is “The Internet is about you.” We like to think of ourselves as people who have choice and taste and personalized content. But the Internet isn’t about us. It’s about the companies that dominate the data flows of the Internet.’
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Social media gives a voice to voiceless people - its egalitarianism is its greatest quality
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But I was struck by a report Anna Funder discovered that had been written by a Stasi psychologist tasked with trying to understand why they were attracting so many willing informants. His conclusion: ‘It was an impulse to make sure your neighbour was doing the right thing.’
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Anna Funder wrote Stasiland back in 2003 - fourteen years after the fall of the Stasi and three years before the invention of Twitter. Of course no prurient or censorious bureaucrat had intercepted Justine Sacco’s private thoughts. Justine had tweeted them herself, labouring under the misapprehension - the same one I laboured under for a while - that Twitter was a safe place to tell the truth about yourself to strangers. That truth-telling had really proven to be an idealistic experiment gone wrong
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And that’s not an unusual reaction,’ Michael said. ‘People change their phone numbers. They don’t leave the house. They go into therapy. They have signs of PTSD. It’s like the Stasi. We’re creating a culture where people feel constantly surveilled, where people are afraid to be themselves.’

‘Like the NSA,’ I said.

‘This is more frightening than the NSA,’ said Michael. ‘The NSA is looking for terrorists. They’re not getting psychosexual pleasure out of their schadenfreude about you.’

I wondered what to make of Michael’s Stasi analogy. There’s an old Internet adage that as soon as you compare something to the Nazis you lose the argument. Maybe the same could be said about the Stasi - the East Germans’ secret police force during the Cold War. They would, after all, creep into the homes of suspected enemies of the state and spray radiation onto them as they slept, their idea being to use the radiation as a tracking device. Stasi agents would follow them through crowds, pointing Geiger counters at them. A lot of suspected enemies of the state died of unusual cancers during the Stasi’s reign.

But the Stasi weren’t just about inflicting physical horror. Their main endeavour was to create the most elaborate surveillance network in world history. It didn’t seem unreasonable to scrutinize this aspect of them in the hope it might teach us something about our own social media surveillance network
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‘What the first page looks like,’ Michael’s strategist Jered Higgins told me during my tour of their offices, ‘determines what people think of you.’
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Michael Fertik took me for dinner and talked to me about the criticism people often level at him, that ‘any change of search results is manipulating truth and chilling free speech’. He drank some wine. ‘But there is a chilling of behaviour that goes along with a virtual lynching. There is a life modification.’
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At Farukh’s request, Lindsey had been emailing him photographs that didn’t involve her inadvertently flipping off military cemeteries. She’d been providing biographical details too. Her favourite TV show was Parks and Recreation. Her employment history included five years at Walmart ‘which was kind of soul-suckingly awful’.

‘Are you sure you want to say that Walmart was soul-sucking?’ Farukh said.

‘Oh … What? Really?’ Lindsey laughed as if to say, ‘Come on! Everyone knows that about Walmart!’ But then she hesitated.

The conference call was proving an unexpectedly melancholic experience. It was nothing to do with Farukh. He really felt for Lindsey and wanted to do a good job for her. The sad thing was that Lindsey had incurred the Internet’s wrath because she was impudent and playful and foolhardy and outspoken. And now here she was, working with Farukh to reduce herself to safe banalities - to cats and ice cream and Top 40 chart music. We were creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland
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Six months later. Three people sat together in the council chamber at Newark City Hall: me, Jim and Raquel.

Jim had intervened. The prosecutors were persuaded that Raquel was the victim of an ‘abuse cycle’. And so instead of twenty years she served four more months and then they let her go.

‘If shaming worked, if prison worked, then it would work,’ Jim said to me. ‘But it doesn’t work.’ He paused. ‘Look, some people need to go to prison forever. Some people are incapable … but most people …’

‘It’s disorienting,’ I said, ‘that the line between hell and redemption in the US justice system is so fine.’
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I heard Farukh type the word ‘cats’ into his computer. Farukh was young and energetic and just as upbeat and buoyant and lacking in cynicism and malevolent irony as he was hoping to make Lindsey seem. His Twitter profile said he enjoys ‘biking, hiking, and family time’. His plan was to create Lindsey Stone Tumblrs and LinkedIn pages and WordPress blogs and Instagram accounts and YouTube accounts to overwhelm that terrible photograph, wash it away in a tidal wave of positivity, away to a place on Google where normal people don’t look - a place like page two of the search results. According to Google’s own research into our ‘eye movements’, 53 per cent of us don’t go beyond the first two search results, and 89 per cent of us don’t look down past the first page.
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We kept walking - past inmates just sitting there, looking at walls. ‘Normal prison is punishment in the worst sense,’ Jim told me. ‘It’s like a soul-bleeding. Day in, day out, people find themselves doing virtually nothing in a very negative environment.’
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The word forever had been coming up a lot during my two years amongst the publicly shamed. Jonah and Justine and people like them were being told, ‘No. There is no door. There is no way back in. We don’t offer any forgiveness.’ But we know that people are complicated and have a mixture of flaws and talents and sins. So why do we pretend that we don’t?
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