If you already have a list of podcasts you pretend to listen to, put Reply All at the top. It’s a show I had avoided for a while because it’s exclusively “a show about the internet,” a medium I surrender so much of my time to already. But I quickly found that, like most of the public radio offerings these days, it’s just another wide avenue for good human-interest stories. I mean, where else do you see human nature writ large than in your Instagram feed or in some nefarious Reddit comment chain? Besides, each episode is short—some are fifteen minutes, most are no longer than thirty—so it’s great for everyday commutes.

Episode 18 is called “Silence and Respect” and came out April 1. It is all to do with online shaming and public reputations, based on the research of Jon Ronson, who just released a book called So You’ve Been Publically Shamed. In the book and on this podcast episode the central story is of the incredible misfortune of Lindsey Stone, a gifted, outgoing and relatively upstanding charity worker who took a field trip to Washington, D.C. with her group of learning-disabled adults. One small “but” to the equation: she had a (again, relatively normal) thing for photographic gags. She’d take a loitering selfie in front of a “No Loitering” sign; she’d mimic the pose of a statue in front of said statue. You know, silly—but passable—indiscretions. Her running gag with friends became no laughing matter, though, when one of the photos—taken at Arlington Cemetery of all places—was copied from her Facebook page to a popular pro-military page. All of sudden, out of the context of her personal life, her online identity took on the likes of a hated celebrity. It cost Lindsey her job, and much of her personal and social life. You can listen to the episode here:

One of the main concerns here, obviously, is the cost of “knowing” things via the internet. Not only is it scary that “the real Lindsey Stone” was passed over for a Lindsey Stone effigy; it is equally scary that when judgment and opinion has been democratized to every laptop in every home, the speed and distance at which that judgment travels is ominously powerful. The things people say from this faceless ether is terrifying.

The other cost touched on is reputation management—how expensive it is (both literally and figuratively) to erase something that was so easily and arbitrarily destroyed. In a world that can snuff out a reputation just like that, an inherent fallacy surfaces about the whole reputation maintenance: How can one, misunderstood spoof become the defining character trait for an otherwise pretty good person? I mean, that could be any of us! Well-meaning social media users, just waiting for some viral typhoon to come our way, the wrath of a cosmic misunderstanding.

22571552As you hear in the episode, Jon Ronson himself was victimized by a Twitter handle that took his name. This injustice, no doubt, became the impetus behind his book, to find out how public shame is shaping society.

For the past three years, Jon Ronson has travelled the world meeting recipients of high-profile public shamings. The shamed are people like us – people who, say, made a joke on social media that came out badly, or made a mistake at work. Once their transgression is revealed, collective outrage circles with the force of a hurricane and the next thing they know they’re being torn apart by an angry mob, jeered at, demonized, sometimes even fired from their job.

“The shamed are people like us.” One element of this particular story that complicates the victim card is that the shamed, like Lindsey Stone, like us, have made some kind of mistake. Granted, as far as online persona go, the severity of shame almost always outweighs the severity of trespass, but the trespass, for people like you and me, is nearly always there somewhere. And as the show says, the internet, like a never-sleeping, all-seeing eye, is a great leveler of human complicity. The guy from Reputation.com may say that, underneath the hood, “almost nobody is Voldemort”—and that may be true with the people we know and love, the people we see in our everyday lives. The internet operates on a different scope:

So that’s the world we live in now. If the internet thinks you’re Voldemort, it costs a ton of money to fix it, and unfortunately, the internet is on a perpetual hunt for new Voldemorts. And a lot of times, the people cast in the role of Voldemort don’t have that money. One way to think of the internet is as a great flattening. Everyone is a part of the media, and everyone is a potential celebrity.

In an environment when your “reputation” or “social media presence” or “branding” is as costly (and flimsy!) as the judgment it garners, it’s enough to make you hope for a word that takes the shame away, at no cost to the web-user in question. Thankfully, there is a word (and a conference!) for that.