The Showroom by Robin Byles; found on flickr and used under creative commons

Jon Ronson at The Showroom, Sheffield: a half-arsed review

I would argue that my generation has probably seen more change than any other.

The change is technology-driven and affects all spheres of our lives, from the micro to the macro. Synthesisers and computers have changed music forever, for example. I can perform music and DJ in a club using a tablet only a few inches long; meanwhile pop music will never sound the same. I can carry the world’s collective wisdom in ebook format on the same tablet and reference it anywhere, so I’ll never again go back into a library. I’ll never spend more than a few pounds without price-checking and reading reviews online, won’t visit somewhere without stepping through it virtually… I don’t even have phone numbers for half of my friends and if I did I probably wouldn’t use them because I use social media to keep in touch (also I don’t have many friends).

Social media has facilitated a great change in our thinking and behaviour. Interactions that I couldn’t have conceived of whilst I sat tapping in ZX Spectrum games out of a magazine are now commonplace, and frankly very little seems futuristic.

But, argues Jon Ronson in his new book, social media – twitter, primarily, due to the real-time nature of the interactions – has also facilitated a resurgence in a very old-fashioned behaviour: public shaming.

We saw Jon speaking live at Sheffield’s Showroom Cinema this week. The 8pm event was practically sold out, and as clocks ticked to 7:59 and we still queued outside, we (the audience) tweeted our exasperation – an irony not lost on Ronson, as he commented to those sat near the front as we all filed in.

The first thing you realise is that he’s not a rock star. He was pottering around onstage in a baseball cap and hoodie as we filed in; in the city that gave us Prince Naseem, this was no grand boxer’s entrance. He chatted to people on the front row as we took our seats. In fact, it was difficult to tell when the event actually started as he just wandered up to the mic and started chatting, and it was probably five minutes in before he stopped to say hello. It’s part of his style and his charm; everything feels like a chat. He frets endlessly as he talks, playing with his hair, his hands, the cords on his hood, rubbing his shoulder, cracking his knuckles. It would be cliché to call it neurotic, but that’s how it feels. He looks slightly uncomfortable on stage, the way that we might feel in his place, and that makes you warm to him.

He begins with an off-kilter story in which he makes an ass of himself, publicly. It’s funny, but slightly uncomfortable as you realise what the coming denouement is. The audience laughs, but it feels like there’s something behind the laugh, a sense of ‘I’m glad that happened to someone else’. Essentially that sums up both show and book:

If you remember the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet, and you recall the tweet below, you’ll understand what the show is about. Ronson’s hypothesis is that social media is facilitating a return of public shaming, and that we (as a society, not 100% of us) are indulging in it. Maybe it’s the supposed anonymity of social media or the safety of the herd, but we are revelling in the opportunity to point the finger, and laugh, and enjoy the indignation (whether real or not).

For my part, when I read the original tweet and followed the event in real time, I thought the tweet seemed racist. If not racist, then in supremely poor taste. But, when I saw it writ large on the screen in The Showroom, it no longer seemed racist but satirical. It seemed like something Cartman or one of the other (more offensive!) characters in South Park might say. Ronson himself says, that from talking to Sacco, her intention was to poke fun at the insular bubble that America keeps itself in. Maybe taking it away from the furore on twitter suddenly made that intention clearer.

As jokes go, it’s not great. It’s still poorly judged, even if it is satirical. But did Sacco deserve the public humiliation and shaming that followed? If she’d spoken those words out loud in a quiet restaurant, how many people who tweeted abuse or gleefully followed the story would have gone over to her table to remonstrate with her? And if they wouldn’t remonstrate in real life, what is it about twitter that changes people?

The evening ended as it started; with any slightly unhinged, discomfiting story in which Ronson makes an ass of himself in close proximity to a child. All in all an interesting evening, hilarious in parts but certainly with darker turns. Uncomfortable he may be on stage, but he’s a born communicator.

Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, out now via Picador.

For more, better written information, take a look at Ronson’s article in the NY Times: