Most online outrage targets governments, big companies, and celebrities (even new ones, like Noah), with goals identical to old-school letter-writing, picketing, and boycotting campaigns: to bring about change. But Ronson tracked down a few private citizens who’ve been caught in the line of digital fire. There's Lindsey Stone, who led tour groups for the developmentally disabled before a picture of her flipping off the “Silence and Respect” sign at Arlington National Cemetery, staged as an inside joke, went viral among Tea Party types. There are the computer programmers who made an offhand crack about “dongles” while in the audience at a tech conference before a woman who overheard them tweeted out their photo and caused a firestorm. And there's IAD public-relations exec Justine Sacco, whose comment "Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!", originally sent to her 170 Twitter followers, enraged people all over the world.
Almost all of these individuals lost their jobs, took hits to their psyche, and generally had their lives ruined for a time. Ronson spends a lot of his book hop-scotching, free-association-style, between cultural phenomena connected with the word "shame"—prisons, therapy groups, porn shoots—but the most compelling thing he does is make you think about the humans who've been buried under Twitter avalanches. "Sometimes, things need to reach a brutal nadir before people see sense,” Ronson at one point tells Sacco, in an attempt at comfort. "Wow," she replies. "Of all the things I could have been in society’s collective consciousness, it never struck me that I’d end up a brutal nadir.”
Did she, and the other Internet-blasted folks, deserve what they got? Almost certainly not, but Ronson doesn’t want the question even considered. “Since my book came out, a few people said to me, ‘I’m gonna send this book to my children, so they’ll think twice next time they make some sort of joke that could be misconstrued,’” he told New York. “And I’m like, That’s not the behavior change that I’m advocating, because that’s like saying, ‘Don’t wear short skirts, girls.’ It’s like victim blaming.”
With the rape reference, and by opting to use the paradigm of victimhood and shame rather than of offenders and offended, Ronson places online speech in the same ugly cultural tradition that led to medieval stocks, The Scarlet Letter, and the mean-spirited media treatment of Monica Lewinsky. But unlike those phenomena, the modern outrage that Ronson, Oswalt, and others believe to be ruining the world isn't usually directed at consensual sex. It's directed at political and social transgressions; often, it results from insults leveled against some of the most commonly insulted groups of people in history. Critics of online backlashes seem to think pure bloodlust determines what's being contested—"we are addicted to the rush of being offended," Norton wrote—but the fact is that the Internet has empowered folks who were ignored or silenced by society for a long time.