In all likelihood, most people hadn't thought about Monica Lewinsky in a long time. And that is the strange, specific cruelty of the position she's in: We had the luxury of forgetting about her, but she did not have the luxury of forgetting about the world that tormented her.
There is a notable group of people whose lives have been ruined by their notoriety – not because of any crimes committed, but because they broke some social code, or because, in Ms. Lewinsky's case, she became involved with the wrong man. She became the "patient zero" of public humiliation, she told a Vancouver audience last week in a TED2015 speech titled The Price Of Shame.
That price tag carried a lot of zeros. A recent New York Times story tallied the cost to Ms. Lewinsky: She's had trouble finding work; she doesn't have a permanent home; she is still racked by anxiety, 17 years after the news of her affair with Bill Clinton became public. (The cost to Mr. Clinton, now a much-loved elder statesman, can be counted in pocket change.) At least now she has a cause to fight: online shaming and bullying.
"I was branded as a tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo. And of course 'that woman.' I was seen by many but actually known by few," she said in Vancouver.
That last phrase is particularly resonant. How many people who mocked Ms. Lewinsky – late-night comics, rival politicians or newspaper columnists (guilty!) – actually thought for a minute about the damage they might be doing while scoring points against someone they would never meet? And that was before the social-media revolution. Now, thanks to online shaming, a new villain is clamped into the public stocks every day.
Then, of course, they're forgotten, left to pick up the pieces of their lives after the mob has moved on to the next person who's said the wrong thing or made a dumb joke. How many people remember the name Justine Sacco, even if they remember the ill-advised tweet that ruined the public-relations executive's life: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!" Or Lindsey Stone, pilloried for a picture she posted in which she flipped the bird at Arlington National Cemetery? The moving finger wags, and having wagged, moves on. Who gives them another thought now?
British journalist Jon Ronson did. He's written an eye-opening new book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, about the afterlife (actually, it's more like an afterdeath) of the humiliated. The book is a cold splash of water for anyone who's gleefully participated in social-media witch hunts. It might even douse a few torches next time.
In addition to Ms. Sacco and Ms. Stone, he talks to Jonah Lehrer, the disgraced writer of pop-science bestsellers; Mike Daisey, whose wildly popular story about abuses at Apple's factory in China turned out to be fictitious; and Hank, a pseudonym for a man who made an ill-advised "dongle" joke at a tech conference and lived to regret it.
They all lived to regret it. What unites Mr. Ronson's subjects is how utterly their lives were damaged by the social-media backlash that followed their transgressions – some serious, as in Mr. Lehrer's case, but some trivial, as in Ms. Sacco's. They lost jobs. Some couldn't date. All were consumed with anxiety, their lives held hostage to Google algorithms ensuring that one stupid mistake was the only thing known about them.
"I've got three kids," said Hank, fired from his job as a developer after his stupid joke. "Getting fired was terrifying." When a firestorm of protest greeted what she thought was just a cheeky picture, Ms. Stone was asked to leave a job she loved working with learning-disabled adults. She became depressed and stayed inside for a year: "Literally overnight, everything I knew and loved was gone."
Mr. Ronson, once an enthusiastic online shamer, holds himself and the rest of us to account. We don't like to think we're part of a mob, but often we are – especially when it's so easy and satisfying to tweet or post a quick condemnation. "When shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes, nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be," he say. "The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche."
It's not a perfect analogy, because the snowflake also never feels glee as the avalanche comes tumbling down. Ms. Lewinsky, as part of her new advocacy role, is calling for an increase in civility and compassion online. She may be waiting another 20 years.