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The ShortRead: Jon Ronson


The ShortRead of 1 April


So You've Been Publicly Shamed

Author: Jon Ronson

What's the story: The internet is getting a bit out of hand. Poorly constructed tweets and badly judged emails are landing people in disproportionately scolding waters. Public shaming has moved from the considered world of editorial and media into the hands of the mob, devouring anyone unfortunate enough to land in their social feed as 'shaming' becomes a form of social control. It's a subject Jon Ronson knows intimately.

Author of (the utterly brilliant) The Psychopath Test, Ronson's latest work sees him explore the profoundly spiky world of public shaming, speaking to recipients of high-profile digital floggings. A complicated, important topic, Jonson tackles it with whit and clarity. Get at taste in the extract below. And then tweet about it - nicely. 

Release date: Out now


I tweeted Luke Robert Mason. If he was adamant that he wouldn’t take down his spambot, perhaps we could at least meet? I could film the encounter and put it on YouTube. He agreed, writing that he’d be glad to explain the philosophy behind the infomorph. I replied that I’d certainly be interested to learn the philosophy behind the spambot.

I rented a room in Central London. He arrived with two other men – the team behind the spambot. All three were academics. They had met at the University of Warwick. Luke was the youngest, handsome, in his twenties, a ‘researcher in technology and Cyberculture and director of the Virtual Futures conference’, according to his online CV.

David Bausola looked like a rakish teacher, the sort of person who might speak at a conference on the literature of Aleister Crowley. He was a ‘creative technologist’ and the CEO of the digital agency, Philter Phactory. Dan O’Hara had a shaved head and eyes that were piercing and annoyed-looking. His jaw was clenched. He was in his late thirties, a lecturer in English and American Literature at the University of Cologne. Before that he’d been a lecturer at Oxford. He’d written a book about J. G. Ballard called Extreme Metaphors and another book called Thomas Pynchon: Schizophrenia & Social Control. As far as I understood it, David Bausola had done the actual building of the spambot, while the two other men provided ‘research and consultancy’. I suggested they sit in a row on the sofa so I could film them all in a single shot. Dan O’Hara gave the others a glance.

‘Let’s play along,’ he said to them. They all sat, with Dan in the middle.

‘What do you mean by “play along”?’ I asked him.

‘It’s about psychological control,’ he said.

‘Do you think my having you in a row on the sofa is my way of psychologically controlling you?’ I asked.

‘Absolutely,’ said Dan.

‘In what way?’ I asked.

‘I do that with students,’ said Dan. ‘I put myself in a separate chair and put the students in a row on the sofa.’

‘Why would you want to psychologically control some students?’ I asked.

Dan looked briefly worried that he’d been caught saying something eerie. ‘In order to control the learning environment,’ he said.

‘Is this making you feel uncomfortable?’ I asked him.

‘No, not really,’ said Dan. ‘Are you uncomfortable?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘Why?’ Dan asked.

I spelled out my grievances. ‘Academics,’ I began, ‘don’t swoop into a person’s life uninvited and use him for some kind of academic exercise and when I ask you to take it down you’re, Oh it’s not a spambot, it’s an infomorph.’ Dan nodded. He leaned forward. ‘There must be lots of

Jon Ronsons out there?’ he began. ‘People with your name? Yes?’

I looked suspiciously at him. ‘I’m sure there are people with my name,’ I replied, carefully.

‘I’ve got the same problem,’ said Dan, with a smile.

‘There’s another academic out there with my name.’

‘You don’t have exactly the same problem as me,’ I said, ‘because my exact problem is that three strangers have stolen my identity and have created a robot version of me and are refusing to take it down even though they come from respectable universities and give TEDx talks.’

Dan let out a long-suffering sigh. ‘You’re saying, “There is only one Jon Ronson,”’ he said. ‘You’re proposing yourself as the real McCoy, as it were, and you want to maintain that integrity and authenticity. Yes?’

I stared at him.

‘I think we feel annoyed with you,’ Dan continued, ‘because we’re not quite persuaded by that. We think there’s already a layer of artifice and it’s your online personality – the brand Jon Ronson – you’re trying to protect. Yeah?’


‘The Internet is not the real world,’ said Dan.

‘I write my tweets,’ I replied. ‘And I press Send. So it’s me on Twitter.’

We glared at each other.

‘That’s not academic,’ I said. ‘That’s not postmodern. That’s the fact of it.’

‘This is bizarre,’ Dan said. ‘I find it really strange – the way you’re approaching this. You must be one of the very few people who have chosen to come on Twitter and use their own name as their Twitter name. Who does that? And that’s why I’m a little suspicious of your motives, Jon. That’s why I say I think you’re using it as brand management.’

I said nothing, but to this day it kills me that it didn’t cross my mind to point out to him that Luke Robert Mason’s Twitter name is @LukeRobertMason. Our conversation continued like this for an hour. I told Dan that I have never used the term ‘brand management’ in my life. Language like that is alien to me, I said. ‘And that’s the same with your spambot. Its language is different to mine.’

‘Yes,’ the three men agreed in unison.

‘And that’s what’s annoying me so much,’ I explained.

‘It’s a misrepresentation of me.’

‘You’d like it to be more like you?’ Dan said.

‘I’d like it to not exist,’ I said.

‘That’s bizarre,’ said Dan. He let out an incredulous whistle. ‘I find something psychologically interesting about that.’

‘Why?’ I said.

‘I find that quite aggressive,’ he said. ‘You’d like to kill these algorithms? You must feel threatened in some way.’

He gave me a concerned look. ‘We don’t go around generally trying to kill things we find annoying.’

‘You’re a TROLL!’ I yelled.



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