Jon Ronson is very big on Twitter. That’s to say he’s an active fan of the service, has well over 100,000 followers, and first opened up an account back in December 2008.
He posts a great deal, happily interacts with his followers, and often updates them on the writing of each new project. In the case of his latest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Twitter has also helped to inspire the subject matter.
It looks at the very modern incarnation of public shaming. So that’s incidents in which individuals have acted unwisely – an ill-advised Tweet here, a bad-taste Facebook posting there – and have been pilloried by an invisible community of strangers. In some extreme cases, this has led to jobs being lost and lives being ruined. Ronson‘s book details several such cases and highlights this disturbing trend in social media.
Despite the fascinating material, though, it’s a rather underwhelming piece of work, with no great conclusions to draw other than the obvious: that it’s a bad thing and we need to have a big think about it. It doesn’t so much explore the issues as point them out, quite a lot. It lacks any real sense of a developing, building narrative. It follows some extraordinary stories, but other strands (Ronson attending a shame eradication workshop, or considering posing as a woman for research purposes, or visiting a porn film shoot) while certainly entertaining, don’t quite amount to anything. In fact, it’s altogether quite a nebulous and woolly book. Some examples concern social media whereas others are from the media at large and, as the likes of News of the World exposés are nothing new, it dilutes the main thrust of the book, namely that this is a particularly modern menace.
Possibly, the whole project would have been best presented in the form of an article, or a short series of articles, rather than as a full-length book where it loses focus and momentum. And it may be nit-picking but the sense of under-performing extends as far as that slightly duff mouthful of a title (in the acknowledgements, Ronson admits to having considered other titles including Shame or Tarred and Feathered, a case of first thought – well, and second thought – being best thought).
It’s by no means a disaster, though. There’s much to admire here, and Ronson’s burning desire to address an unbridled, lazy malaise is to be applauded. His writing style is always a pleasure, so clear and fluid that it remains rich, engaging and deeply humane, albeit while deploying far less undercutting humour than he’s generally been known for. But all told, this might just be his least satisfying book so far.
To be fair, a lot of this disappointment is swept aside by seeing Ronson speak about the book. He’s currently on a short tour to promote it, and his appearance at the Sale Waterside is pretty much perfectly judged. In person he’s delightful, boundlessly warm, funny and sharp. Before throwing it open for a Q&A, he chooses to focus on relaying the notorious public shaming story of Justine Sacco, one of the key elements of the book, and balances the humour and the bleakness of the tale expertly.
Plus, this being a tram stop or two away from Timperley, he goes on to share some of his memories of his time as a member of Frank Sidebottom’s band, which last year formed the basis of his fictionalised feature film Frank and his non-fiction mini-book of the same name. In fact, this provides the perfect counterweight to Sacco’s story, as it concludes with Ronson using Twitter to launch a bid for donations for the funeral of Chris Sievey, the man behind the big-eyed mask. Despite the latent lynch mob mentality, Ronson remains passionate about his fascination with Twitter, and this tale backs his stance up well. Certainly, it’s more persuasive than the book itself, or by Ronson’s on-stage decree that anyone present who continues to doubt the significance of social media has simply got it wrong.
It’s anyone’s guess where Ronson will go next, or how long it will be until his next book, particularly with his burgeoning career in the film industry (though from here the mind boggles at the news that his 2011 book The Psychopath Test is being adapted for the big screen, with Scarlett Johansson in some approximation of the Ronson role). But, either way, it’s to be hoped that he doesn’t step behind the scenes entirely. He’s a fine public speaker and broadcaster – Exhibit A being his BBC Radio 4 series Jon Ronson On – and on occasion, as here, his work actually comes over better when delivered in person.
By Andy Murray
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is available now in hardback from Picador. For more information click here.