So You've Been Publicly Shamed

There’s a term that gets bandied about a lot in conversations about social media that I find particularly grating: personal branding. The idea behind personal branding is that we need to market ourselves, to create a persona, to hide behind a crafted veneer, when we engage with others online; it is the notion that if everything we say and do can be interpreted in many ways, we need to ensure that everything we do and say is crafted so conspicuously and consciously that there is only one way to interpret it, and that interpretation builds some kind of “brand equity.”

In essence, personal branding is a function of feeling as though, if everything we do and say is being watched, we should be putting on a such a show that it ensures that the watchers are pleased.

There is a certain blandness that comes from the idea of personal branding; in an effort to never offend, we hide that which makes us interesting. I’m not arguing that we must be offensive, of course, but what I do miss is the ability to be ourselves and make mistakes, to acknowledge that we aren’t perfect and that we are flawed, and not have those mistakes define who we are.

There’s a sentence towards the end of Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed that resonated with me: 

“We are creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland.”

It is this blandness that worries me, and that is at the crux of Mr. Ronson’s book on shame. While he goes deep into the stories of shame, analysis of why we shame, and descriptions of how people cope with it, the enduring message left from reading So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is that we now live in a world where the worst thing you can do is make a mistake.

Like many of the case studies in the book, I have made mistakes (though, to be fair, none to the extent and scope of those discussed in the book). When I have erred, I have owned up to my misgivings, apologized, and endeavored to better myself from what I learned. In almost every case, I have been greeted with grace and understanding, with forgiveness and teaching.

I wonder what it would be like if I faced public ridicule, from hundreds and thousands of people, every time I made a mistake. What would that mean? How would I react? Would I revert to blandness? Is sacrificing my willingness to admit ignorance and perhaps share my emotional distress the price I have to pay, in this new world, in order to not face mass, public shaming?

Perhaps, insidiously, being online for all these years has already made me bland. I already notice that I am more reticent to share when I am sad, when I am upset, when I am hurt. I notice now that I am less likely to speak up and ask questions on topics where I am ignorant or less informed. These activities now happen in-person, in the company of people with whom I feel secure and safe; over the years, I have become reluctant to share my fragility and insecurity with the online masses.

Maybe this is, in effect, the building of a personal brand, as unconscious as it may be. Maybe Mr. Ronson is right: that in an era where we can be shamed for anything that transgresses, there is no room left for transgression. Nobody wants to be the next case study in any sequel to So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

There is a passage in Helen Rosner’s “Lost Soles” that is particularly poignant, as it makes me question my own attitude towards sharing my thoughts and emotions:

“I used to worry that I bared my feelings too readily, too voluminously; more recently, when I’m thinking about them at all, I worry that I don’t show them nearly enough.”

Maybe this, in essence, is what the era of public shaming has wrought: we once bared our souls, and now we hide them from even ourselves.