Trolls, They’re Just Like Us

What do entertainers Leslie JonesMinnie Driver and Normani Kordei have in common? They’ve had break ups with Twitter, the hyperactive social media site that can often act like an unregulated kangeroo court. Unlike most of us, however, many celebs have experts to navigate through Twitter’s beaky skies.

These days, trolling can also threaten the reputation of normal people, according to Jon Ronson, the inquisitive author of the terrific-ly timely book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

One powerful example is the one of Hank, not his real name, who attended a tech developers conference in 2013. Giggling with his friend Alex, he whispered that he would “fork” a guy’s “repo,” which in their nerdy tech speak, was a compliment for the presenter and his new project. Adria Richards, who sat in front of them, didn’t appreciate the sexual connotation of the joke and snapped a picture of them, sending it adrift in the Twitt-o-sphere. Ten minutes later, an organizer pulled them out of the conference to defend their comments. Uncomfortable, they left early only to found out about Richard’s disastrous tweet and follow-up blog. Hank was fired the next day. Here’s what he wrote on a discussion board on Hacker News.

Hi, I’m the guy who made a comment about big dongles. First of all I’d like to say I’m sorry. I really did not mean to offend anyone and I really do regret the comment and how it made Adria feel. She had every right to report me to staff, and I defend her position … [But] as a result of the picture she took I was let go from my job today. Which sucks because I have 3 kids and I really liked that job. She gave me no warning, she smiled while she snapped the pic and sealed my fate.”

That’s when trolls on a famous trolling site turned on Richards for misusing her privilege and getting a guy fired. “Cut out her uterus with an xacto knife,” someone wrote. Someone sent Richards a picture of a beheaded woman with tape over her mouth. Her face was superimposed onto the bodies of porn actors. Then her employer’s website and servers suffered an enormous DDoS attack, causing them to crash. Attackers said they would let up once Richards was fired. She was. What a terrible shame for both Hank and Richards. But they were fine, right?

No. They weren’t alright. While Hank found a job relatively quickly, he was perpetually on edge. Richards had more difficulties finding work. As Ronson shows, being trolled is highly traumatic.

Throughout his book, Ronson examines how normal people, who are hard-wired and raised to do good, can organize into lynch mobs. Ronson, who has a likable, egg-heady writing voice, was most interested in the accepted practice of public shaming online.

In 310 hilarious, sad and compassionate pages, Ronson chronicles the lives of non-celebs torn apart by social media. Or rather, by us. Yes, he admits. He’s been part of the pile-on, motivated to defend the underdog without leaving his laptop. All of this is making a more fearful, careful and conformist society, he theorizes. “We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside it,” he concluded.