What happened to the dream of online democracy asks Jon Ronson in his new book which tackles the spectre of “social media shaming”by Jonathan Derbyshire / March 20, 2015 / Leave a comment
Reviewing Jon Ronson’s new book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” this week, India Knight described it as “terrifying”. She was right. It’s a highly unsettling exploration of what Ronson calls “social media shaming”—the kind of thing that ended up destroying the career of the American PR executive Justine Sacco, after a joke she tweeted as she was getting on a flight to South Africa went wrong.
In the book, Sacco tells Ronson that she was trying to draw attention to the “dire situation that… exists in post-apartheid South Africa”. Twitter, however, didn’t get the joke, and when she landed in Cape Town, Sacco discovered that her tweet was trending worldwide—she also discovered just what an effective mechanism Twitter is for processing opprobrium and rage. “Over the years,” Ronson writes, “I’ve sat across tables from a lot of people whose lives have been destroyed… Justine Sacco felt like the first person I had ever interviewed who had been destroyed by us.”
I met Ronson earlier this week. I told him that it seemed to me that one of the things his book is about is his growing disillusionment with the internet and the evaporation of the democratic promise that it seemed to embody in the early days. At the end of the book, he quotes his friend Adam Curtis, the documentary-maker, who says that the internet has turned out to be precisely the opposite of the kind of democracy that the Wired crowd, the techno-utopians, claimed it would be.
JR: Adam is very prescient! Years and years ago, when I’d just got into Twitter and was thinking, “This is the Garden of Eden—voiceless people have got a voice, it’s a profoundly positive change in human behaviour,” Adam just looked at me like I was insane. He said, “No, this is a terrible thing. For a start, it’s profoundly narcissistic. If everybody’s looking inwards at their own domestic lives, nobody’s going to do anything about changing the world.” And also, he said it was like a kind of echo chamber. I said, “Don’t be ridiculous, you’re wrong.” And of course, a few years later, he’s been proved right. It’s this mutual approval machine that’s profoundly conservative and conforming. Adam’s new prediction about the internet, which I didn’t put in the book… he says the internet is like the inner city communities of the 1970s and 80s, where everything got completely out of control and everyone fled to the suburbs. People are going to flee the internet.