'Social media could've been something beautiful, but we've turned it into the Stasi' The internet and social media has opened up to us a whole new world of possibilities. However, as Jon Ronson tells Nathan Bevan, it also means each of us is only ever a single keystroke away from destroying our entire future.
ON Ronson's finger is hovering above his laptop keyboard when I call him at his New York home.
J"Just hang on one second. Um, OK, I just... have... to... press... send," he says distractedly, before quietly and hurriedly rereading what he's just written and finally hitting 'enter.'.
He apologises for keeping me hanging on the line, but, given the subject matter of the frankly terrifying new book he's about to release, there's little wonder he's so fastidious about checking the content of his emails before dispatching them into the ether.
The stuff of cold sweats for anyone who has fired off, or even come close to sending, an ill-advised missive on social media, So You've Been Publicly Shamed sees Ronson do away with his usual rogues' gallery of shadowy governmental cabals, Haitian death squad leaders and LSD-imbibing psychic soldiers to concentrate on normal people like you or me - ordinary Joes who find out, in the hardest way imaginable, that we are what we tweet.
People just like Justine Sacco, the Manhattan comms exec whose entire life imploded in 2013 as the result of a one badly judged gag sent to her 170 Twitter followers: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!" Or the 32-year-old Massachusetts woman whose running Facebook joke about disobeying public notices - taking selfies while puffing a cigarette under a "No Smoking" sign, for example - curdled horribly when she uploaded a pic of herself screaming and giving the finger outside a famous war cemetery, right next to the legend: "Silence and Respect."
In both cases the banality of their transgressions - although admittedly head-smackingly dumb - were far outstripped by the apoplectic collective online reaction which greeted them, a furious flagellation via virtual lynch mob until their personal and professional lives and reputations lay in tatters.
And, for a self-professed neurotic of Woody Allen-esque proportions, Ronson admitted that immersing himself in that world would have a hugely negative impact on this own well-being.
"Oh absolutely, it was terrifying to write," says the 47-year-old Cardiff-born author, slamming the front door behind him as he makes his way across town along the wind-whipped banks of the Hudson River to a lunch engagement.
"At one point I even asked my doctor to prescribe me (the anti-anxiety drug) Xanax, that's how stressed I was with whole thing.
"Meeting these people whose lives had been destroyed by one simple mistake - I mean, my God.
"I was like, 'What the hell has become of us as a species that we can do this to our fellow human beings?' "And the scariest thing of all is that behaviour, wanting to rip someone's very existence to shreds, is actually born of an earnest desire to do good, to right a perceived wrong - after which we log off, utterly unaware of the chaos we've subsequently caused.
"We've become like drone strike operators in that respect."
Having begun work on So You've Been Publicly Shamed before his last work - 2011's The Psychopath Test - hit the shelves, Ronson admits that it took a gruelling three years to complete.
"Saying that the people in my book were reluctant to talk would be the understatement of the year," he laughs, explaining that many of those publicly shamed had effectively gone to ground in the intervening years, often moving far afield in an attempt to disassociate themselves with their darkest days.
"Everyone took an extraordinary amount of coaching to be in it and even after I'd persuaded them they continued to express their profound regrets about getting involved.
"Thankfully, though, they came to the conclusion I wanted to do the right thing and wasn't hiding some sinister agenda.
"I told them, 'Something really terrible has happened and no one can see it, but I can'.
"I don't want to sound self-aggrandising but I feel like I'm in such a minority in that respect.
"I feel like yelling, 'Look at what we've become here - we're destroying people for nothing. NOTHING.' "After all the time I've spent writing about sociopaths, psychopaths and the criminally insane, turns out it's us who are the crazy ones after all.
"And I'm not talking trolls here - you know, the type who tweet out rape threats at someone who's "I asked her if she felt bad that the guy lost his job and she replied, 'Not too bad, my empathy only goes so far.'.
"Then she added, 'Maybe if he'd had Down's syndrome and pushed someone off a platform in front of a train I'd have felt differently'."
Sorry, come again? "Exactly," howls Ronson. "I had to recheck she'd actually said that about a dozen times.
"In the end my wife Elaine said to me, 'Jon, do you honestly think you could have imagined something like that?' "At which point I realised I was being ridiculous." That said, Ronson reveals that now is the first time he's been able to relax since he started the project.
"Writing it made me incredibly tense and all the interviews and promotional stuff afterwards can be exhausting, so there's only really ever a fleeing window of happiness for me in the whole endeavour - and that's when the book's finished, I know it works and I'm just doing the final finessing.
"Then again, the early reviews seem to be good and most of the people in the book have been in touch to say they're happy with what I did.
"Not that it's about making everyone like it, I'm not in PR - I just want to come across as fair.
"After all, my main responsibility as a journalist is to get to the truth and, as we all know, the truth can hurt sometimes."
It can also be far stranger than fiction, like the episode where Ronson ended up going to war with a robot version of himself.
Yes, really. "The whole reason I decided to write this book in the first place is because a group of academics decided to create a fake Jon Ronson online," says the author.
"I'd done something for the Guardian about how much I hated spambots (computer programs which automatically troll web pages and harvest email addresses at which to send unsolicited email) and I suppose they did it to punish me.
"Actually, 'punish' is probably the wrong word, more like 'teach me an interesting lesson'."
So they created a doppleganger Jon Ronson on Twitter and had it spout stream of conscious randomness, from fretting over a recipe for lemongrass stew to how to host a perfect dinner party.
"It was just ridiculous stuff that no one who knew me would ever believe I'd tweet about.
"But I hate the idea that people might buy my books, like them and start following the fake me online, only to get bombarded with nonsense like, 'For a midnight snack I'm tempted to try a little cress and apple in a roll with sweet and sour sauce - can I haz (sic) some duck flan with custard?' "I could feel my chest getting tight from it all, but the thing that really did it for me was the fake Jon tweeting, 'Dreaming about time and c***'.
"So I tracked the academics down and emailed them a request to dismantle the spambot, to which they replied, "We prefer the term 'infomorph.'.
"'But it's stealing my identity,' I added, 'Jon, it's the internet, not the real world,' they retorted."
Exasperated, Ronson arranged to meet them and hammer out their issues face to face.
"I taped the encounter and I'm afraid I got very screechy.
"Screechiness when I'm angry is something of an Achilles' heel for me, but I posted the video online all the same and, to my surprise, the response fell unanimously in my favour.
"It was wonderful - everyone was championing me and decrying these blokes, saying they had no right, etc.
"But I went from feeling joy to total unease because things got really vitriolic and vicious towards them, with a few posts even suggesting that they needed to die.
"In the end they closed the infomorph down, but it left me with a really sour taste in my mouth and I decided to do some research into that whole area."
And the reason he decided to side with the shamed rather than the shamers? "When I first moved to New York a couple of years ago I felt quite miserable and lost all my confidence.
"Silly stuff really, like being able to get on the guest list to any gig I wanted in London to not being able to get my name on the door for anything over here.
"Shallow, I know, but it really eroded away at me and I ended up depressed for about 12 months.
"Because of that, though, I decided to take the viewpoint of those who'd gone through the wringer and been vilified for some silly little mistake.
"However, I picked them really carefully, I wasn't about to find myself suddenly having to defended racists or homophobes - I wanted to remain PC.
"It was very much a case of 'there but for the grace of God go I',' because anyone of us can misjudge our comments.
"The main difference is that, with social media, we can wake up the next morning and find ourselves the target of almost universal hatred."
It might come as a shock then to discover that Ronson actually quite likes Twitter - loves it, in fact.
"In the early days of social media I enjoyed that inability to self-edit which so many people had.
"There wasn't anything offensive about it all, just folk tweeting honestly about their private anxieties and foibles.
"And you'd read them and go, 'Oh my God, I'm just like that' - it was really nice, like a radical de-shaming exercise of sorts."
And then it all went to hell, I add. "And then it all went to hell, yes," he shouts. "Along came all these people and f***** it for the rest of us.
"With social media we had the power to create something beautiful, like the garden of Eden. But instead we turned this beautiful idealistic socialism into the Stasi.
"I don't know, Nathan - maybe the internet will be like disco in the late 1980s.
"One day it'll just implode and we'll all be free to lead better lives and behave nicer to each other.
"Perhaps we'll come up with something new and improved with which to replace it."
And the likes of Justine Sacco? "She should never have been a cause celebre in the first place," says Ronson.
"Her words should never have gone viral - better if one or two of her 170 Twitter followers had given her a ticking off for making a bad joke about white privilege and she realised, 'Oh s***, you're right. Sorry.' "But I still love social media, it's what helped keep me going during my bleak first year in New York.
"I hated, and still do hate, going to parties and would much rather have a fun chat with someone on Twitter.
"That's why I get so worked up about stuff like this because it feels like all these nasty people have broken into my house," he laughs.
Interview now over, his destination reached, Ronson asks if I think he's said anything during the course of our chat that might, in turn, lead to his own public shaming.
No, I tell him, except now I'm worried I'll write something in my article that may upset him.
"Ha, what a pair, eh? Make sure you put that bit in at the end," he adds.
So I do.
So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson is published by Picador on Thursday, priced PS14.99 Jon Ronson, main picture, penned Frank and, right, The Men Who Stare At Goats
campaigning to see more women on British bank notes. There's no mystery to them, they're just misogynistic idiots. "I'm far more interested in nice, normal mainstream folk who, for whatever reason, suddenly descend into mad, battering cruelty." Didn't he think, though, that by writing a book about it, he'd be putting himself right in those very same cross-hairs? "I did. I thought, 'What if I'm next?' "What if I put something wrong in my book that lots of people take offence at? It became a bit of a
ticking timebomb. "I don't think I have done that with the book, by the way," he laughs. "But I did get very OCD in checking my interview tapes at one stage." A particular sticking point was the story of Adria Richards who, after hearing a man seated nearby at a California IT conference joke about having a "big dongle", tweeted a stern remonstration which ended up getting him fired.
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|Publication:||Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)|
|Date:||Mar 7, 2015|
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