Jon Ronson's forthcoming book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, can't reach front porches soon enough, assuming it resembles the adaptation published in The New York Times. The journalist and humorist revisits the stories of mostly obscure people who showed bad judgment (as every Internet user has done at one time or another) but were unlucky enough to become the focus of an angry digital mob. The nature of their transgressions varies. But in each case, the punishments arbitrarily urged or meted out by callous strangers on social media affected their lives for years, costing them jobs, causing them to flee from their homes, stressing their loved ones, and sending them into states of existential despair.
Those subjected to death threats, harassment, termination, and mass outpourings of digital hate were not examined and found to be particularly malign or odious individuals. They just made a mistake that happened to go viral, often in ways that would've been extremely difficult to anticipate beforehand, and they were judged as if their transgressions alone defined them. Sometimes whole controversies unfolded on Twitter or Facebook. Other times, a digital journalist directed the ire of the Internet at a given target. Sam Biddle reflected on playing the instigator's role in an apology he posted on the one-year anniversary of helping to shame someone into unemployment, writing that when his target contacted him, "I realized suddenly that I felt very guilty about having—I assumed—destroyed another person on what was basically a professional whim."