Secondhand Adventures in Book Clubbing

"I found the descriptions of the horse to be, frankly, astonishingly beautiful, and yet disturbingly arousing."
“I found the descriptions of the horse to be, frankly, astonishingly beautiful and yet disturbingly arousing.”

Mrs. Kuhl and her friends have a book club. After a rather calamitous go at Emma Donoghue’s Room and at a loss for a title that would please all tastes, I suggested they read Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The book had incidentally been selected for the One Book One Town program run by our library, which culminated in a presentation by Ronson at the local university last night. Mrs. Kuhl liked the book but one thing kept irritating her: Ronson’s claims of a uniform Twitter.

I identified both with Justine and also with the people who tore her apart. And I thought: We’re punishing Justine, gleefully punishing Justine, with this thing that we are the most terrified might happen to us.

At the presentation, Ronson repeatedly used the words “we” and “us” to describe the bullies who attacked Justine Sacco. During the Q&A portion, Mrs. Kuhl was the first to ask Ronson a question: What percentage of Twitter shamed Sacco? Ronson said he didn’t know, then continued to throw blame on everyone in the room, including himself.

Mrs. Kuhl’s question would be easy to answer if we had access to Twitter’s big data: simply set time parameters around the date (21 December 2013) and divide the number of tweeps using @JustineSacco or the #HasJustineLanded hashtag by the total number of users active that day. But as Twitter is cagey with its proprietary info, the best we can do is guess. The month before, Twitter said it had 232 million “monthly active users” (out of a total of 651 million accounts — the difference being a “dark pool” of inactive or barely active users); and there were an estimated 100,000 tweets about Sacco. If every one of those tweets had a unique author (and they probably didn’t), then only 0.0431 percent of active Twitter tweeted about her. That’s not “we” or “us.” That’s a very small, very specific group of somebody else.

Ronson also cited the fact that #HasJustineLanded was trending worldwide as proof of the monolithic nature of the shaming but Twitter’s bar for trending can be very low, sometimes as low as 500 or 600 tweets. Their algorithm for trending has more to do with time of day and the frequency over a short span rather than overall volume.

Twitter is not a homogeneous experience. A good example of this is black Twitter, something I rarely witness without trending hashtags (like when #Blackish was trending the morning of February 25th). Mrs. Kuhl, because of her love of all things Patriots, has some insight into that world via the Venn overlap of white and black Pats fans, but I never see it. I know it exists — and yet there is an entire universe of conversation happening out there that goes completely over my head.

That said, just because it’s a small clique doing the cyberbullying doesn’t mitigate the serious effects it can have, from losing a job to contributing to depression and even suicide. I’m glad for Ronson’s spotlight on the issue but his argument would be better served if he stopped using the collective “us” and started asking questions about the specific behavior or traits that lead to bullying. After all, when a bullet-ridden corpse is discovered in an alley, psychiatrists don’t throw up their hands and sermonize about how we’re all murderers.

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