This is book is a horror story written with a lightness of touch about how packs of humans can make snap moral judgements and run campaigns that tear others’ lives apart with no thought for the consequences aside from a snap judgement to a perceived wrong-doing glimpsed mostlikely in others’ social media posts. Jonah Lehrer brought some of this on himself, but some others of Ronson’s subjects were innocent young people who stepped a little over some boundary of “taste” and lost their livelihoods as a consequence of one tweet or post.
Part of Ronson’s appeal is that he is aware that he is in trying to understand this. he is also adding to the pile of publicity. The book begins with the story of Ronson dealing with a spambot created with his name. Some academics created an algorithm that tweets in his name (at jon_ronson). And their seemingly confused justification for this (I only have Ronson’s side of the story–I have made no attempt to out find more about these people.) that they are investigating the bots that bring down Wall Street by setting up a bot-Ronson is the launching point of the narrative. Ronson really tries to dig into the motive for shaming, the ideas about how crowds behave differently from individuals. He is funny, and has empathy for these real people brought to their knees first on Social Media and then in the real world. The final line of the book is perhaps the scariest: “We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside it.” Many of us are very careful about what we post on social media, and it is, as it was described to me once by a workshop leader, who was the first person I ever followed on Twitter, “like speaking in a very large crowded party.” Just as at a party. It is possible that only your friends will hear, but someone walking by, or someone who talks to one of those friends later, will hear what you said. Things can spread in human interactions, but the party is much larger, and the words you type are there for others to find for a very long time. What I hope is that people will realise that there are people amongst the relatively few (I hope ) bots out there, and think before they tweet something negative, but I would like to see that more in real life too. In cars. In stores. Everywhere. Twitter and Facebook are where real people meet and interact. They are public spaces, and out tendency to relish the downfall of others in books and newspapers and television where it is mediated by journalists (like Ronson) is now in our own hands. And a little mercy goes a long way.