In Jon Ronson's newest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, the author makes a stirring observation: We’d seen people destroyed by governments and corporations before, but when Justine Sacco was destroyed, it was the first time we’d ever done it ourselves. In an interview with Jesse Thorn on the Maximum Fun podcast Bullseye, the idea is perfectly distilled in the following exchange:
Ronson: I thought some of this stuff was amazing because I’ve spent my life writing funny stories about people going crazy with power, and here it was us. I say in my book that “this is the first time I’ve ever sat across the table from somebody who had been destroyed by us.”
Thorn: You literally wrote a book called Them.
Ronson: Yeah. I should have called this book Us.
You probably remember the incident he’s referring to, if not first hand then from Ronson’s popular New York Times article from earlier this year detailing Sacco's destruction. Essentially, Sacco made a joke in poor taste before getting on a 12 hour flight to Cape Town. When she arrived, her life had been ruined by Twitter outrage. She had been ganged up on by the Twitter hive mind, made into a sacrificial avatar for us to burn at the stake in a righteous reflex to denounce white privilege.
Ronson uses this, and a number of other examples of modern public shaming, to deftly call into question one of the most uncontrollable destructive social forces humanity currently knows. A virtual mob of Twitter users can turn a normal human being into a social pariah, costing them not only their reputation, but their life long vocation and the chance to meet anyone new without having to broach the topic of the scars left from their virtual lashing. The persecutors may be motivated out of a need to do good, a lust for social inclusion, a sense of political activism or just to watch the world burn (read: for the lulz).
The idea of being publicly shamed is terrifying in its own right, and it would be easy to point to how the simple knowledge of such a social practice breeds a panopticon style society, negating any validity to claims of valuing free speech. But what I find more horrifying than becoming the prey of the same sort of memetic leviathan that destroyed Sacco and the others detailed in Ronson’s book, is the idea that I am part of that invisible, life-eating beast.
Mobs are a staple of horror media. A swarm of rats or flesh eating scarab beetles; a congregation of fanatical cultists or a horde of zombies - these evoke a fear of critical mass. A single zombie is splatter-able, but an undead sea of gnashing teeth and moans is an inevitable death made manifest. Just like a single hateful tweet, one zombie can ruin your day, but probably not in a world-ending way. That said, if one destructive vector happens to make enough noise in the right place, it could attract others, instigating an all consuming tide of ugly bytes or self-righteous words, depending on the example you’re following.
I’ll admit, likening Twitter-shaming to zombie-like behaviour is unfair and inaccurate. The participants in a shaming aren’t brainlessly motivated by unholy hunger. Rather, they are true, fully sentient human beings. A better horror analogy would be the row house people from Junji Ito’s horror manga, Uzumaki.
Uzumaki is about a town possessed by an unknown force that manifests its influence through the shape of a spiral. The citizens of the town become obsessed with the shape in various nightmare scenarios that range from self-mutilation, to body horror, to narrative terrors that don’t have a name outside of Uzumaki-specifc jargon (snail people, mosquito babies, the Jack in the Box). When the influence of the spiral reaches apocalyptic levels, the remaining citizens take to the only remaining structures in town: ancient row houses.
Unknowingly obsessed with the spiral, the people seeking shelter twist together and become one writhing mass, trying to make more room in the row houses by expanding the ends but instead acting out the will of a higher entity. In the end, the expansion connects each of the old structures to create one giant row house, which, when viewed from above, forms a town-sized spiral.
On the individual, human level, a person in the spiral row house is just trying to stay safe and do the right thing. Outside the walls of her shelter, an exiled row house denizen may find an unthinkable fate. That’s why she helps in the building effort, unknowingly part of a collective horror greater than she can possibly imagine: a massive, tangled abomination made of autonomous individuals. If you die in a row house, you are evacuated. If you don’t belong, you are thrown out. The row house is a body of bodies and it is concerned with its own standard of ungodly health.
Twitter evokes this kind of collective being. We, the users, are each thinking for ourselves, experiencing a whole life of our own. But when topics begin to trend, that autonomy is betrayed as false. We may act under the assumption of free will, and that may very well be the case, but we’re all in that same spiral row house, which, when looked upon from the outside, is utterly un-human on a climatological scale.
Many cases of true horror can be distilled to a discrepancy of scale. What we can’t comprehend makes us feel insignificant. Imagining the distance between us and the nearest star is upsetting because it makes us feel small (though not nearly as small as we actually are).
The same feeling can be evoked in the opposite direction. I am often disturbed by the idea that the whole self that I call Peter Counter is not only a collection of cells with the same DNA, but is also built on a symbiotic foundation of bacterial colonies to which I’m not genetically related. I am made out of microscopic entities, a row house for tiny life, a social network for microbes.
To take part in a social media event like the shaming described in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, or to participate in any kind of trending discussion on a large scale social media platform, that is to accept your place in the body of something bigger than you can comprehend. We are individuals tangled up in a shared ideal - be it political or otherworldly - and the resulting whole entity has no regard for humanity.