In early January 2012, I noticed that another Jon Ronson had started posting on Twitter. His photograph was a photograph of my face. His Twitter name was @jon_ronson. His most recent tweet read: “Going home. Gotta get the recipe for a huge plate of guarana and mussel in a bap with mayonnaise 😀 #yummy.”
“Who are you?” I tweeted him.
“Watching #Seinfeld. I would love a big plate of celeriac, grouper and sour cream kebab with lemongrass #foodie,” he tweeted. I didn’t know what to do.
The next morning, I checked @jon_ronson’s timeline before I checked my own. In the night he had tweeted, “I’m dreaming something about #time and #cock.” He had 20 followers.
I did some digging. A young academic from Warwick University called Luke Robert Mason had a few weeks earlier posted a comment on the Guardian site. It was in response to a short video I had made about spambots. “We’ve built Jon his very own infomorph,” he wrote. “You can follow him on Twitter here: @jon_ronson.”
I tweeted him: “Hi!! Will you take down your spambot please?”
Ten minutes passed. Then he replied, “We prefer the term infomorph.”
“But it’s taken my identity,” I wrote.
“The infomorph isn’t taking your identity,” he wrote back. “It is repurposing social media data into an infomorphic aesthetic.”
I felt a tightness in my chest.
“#woohoo damn, I’m in the mood for a tidy plate of onion grill with crusty bread. #foodie,” @jon_ronson tweeted.
I was at war with a robot version of myself.
A month passed. @jon_ronson was tweeting 20 times a day about its whirlwind of social engagements, its “soirées” and wide circle of friends. The spambot left me feeling powerless and sullied.
I tweeted Luke Robert Mason. If he was adamant that he wouldn’t take down his spambot, perhaps we could at least meet? I could film the encounter and put it on YouTube. He agreed.
I rented a room in central London. He arrived with two other men – the team behind the spambot. All three were academics. Luke was the youngest, handsome, in his 20s, a “researcher in technology and cyberculture and director of the Virtual Futures conference”. David Bausola was a “creative technologist” and the CEO of the digital agency Philter Phactory. Dan O’Hara had a shaved head and a clenched jaw. He was in his late 30s, a lecturer in English and American literature at the University of Cologne.
I spelled out my grievances. “Academics,” I began, “don’t swoop into a person’s life uninvited and use him for some kind of academic exercise, and when I ask you to take it down you’re, ‘Oh, it’s not a spambot, it’s an infomorph.’”
Dan nodded. He leaned forward. “There must be lots of Jon Ronsons out there?” he began. “People with your name? Yes?”
I looked suspiciously at him. “I’m sure there are people with my name,” I replied, carefully.
“I’ve got the same problem,” Dan said with a smile. “There’s another academic out there with my name.”
“You don’t have exactly the same problem as me,” I said, “because my exact problem is that three strangers have stolen my identity and have created a robot version of me and are refusing to take it down.”
Dan let out a long-suffering sigh. “You’re saying, ‘There is only one Jon Ronson’,” he said. “You’re proposing yourself as the real McCoy, as it were, and you want to maintain that integrity and authenticity. Yes?”
I stared at him.
“We’re not quite persuaded by that,” he continued. “We think there’s already a layer of artifice and it’s your online personality – the brand Jon Ronson – you’re trying to protect. Yeah?”
“No, it’s just me tweeting,” I yelled.
“The internet is not the real world,” said Dan.
“I write my tweets,” I replied. “And I press send. So it’s me on Twitter.” We glared at each other. “That’s not academic,” I said. “That’s not postmodern. That’s the fact of it. It’s a misrepresentation of me.”
“You’d like it to be more like you?” Dan said.
“I’d like it to not exist,” I said.
“I find that quite aggressive,” he said. “You’d like to kill these algorithms? You must feel threatened in some way.” He gave me a concerned look. “We don’t go around generally trying to kill things we find annoying.”
“You’re a troll!” I yelled.
I dreaded uploading the footage to YouTube, because I’d been so screechy. I steeled myself for mocking comments and posted it. I left it 10 minutes. Then, with apprehension, I had a look.
“This is identity theft,” read the first comment I saw. “They should respect Jon’s personal liberty.”
“Wow,” I thought, cautiously.
“Somebody should make alternate Twitter accounts of all of those ass clowns and constantly post about their strong desire for child porn,” read the next comment. I grinned. “Utter hateful arseholes,” read the next comment. “These fucked-up academics deserve to die painfully. The cunt in the middle is a fucking psychopath.”
I frowned slightly. “I hope nobody’s going to actually hurt them,” I thought.
Within days, the academics took down @jon_ronson. They had been shamed into acquiescence. Their public shaming had been like the button that restores factory settings. It felt wonderful. The wonderful feeling overwhelmed me like a sedative. Strangers all over the world had united to tell me I was right. It was the perfect ending.
In October 2012 a group of adults with learning difficulties took an organised trip to Washington DC. They visited the National Mall, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Smithsonian, Arlington National Cemetery, the US Mint. At night they sang karaoke in the hotel bar. Their caregivers, Lindsey Stone and her friend Jamie, did a duet of Total Eclipse Of The Heart. “They had the greatest time on that trip,” Lindsey told me. “They thought we were fun and cool.”
Lindsey was telling me the story 18 months later. We were sitting at her kitchen table, in a seaside town on the US east coast. “I like to dance and I like to do karaoke,” Lindsey said, “but for a long time after that trip, I didn’t leave the house. During the day I’d just sit here. I didn’t want to be seen by anybody.”
“How long did that last?” I asked.
“Almost a year.”
Lindsey and Jamie had been with Life (Living Independently Forever) for a year and a half before that trip. Life was a residence for “pretty high-functioning people with learning difficulties”, Lindsey said. “Jamie had started a jewellery club, which was a hit with the girls. We’d take them to the movies. We’d take them bowling. We heard a lot from parents that we were the best thing that ever happened to that campus.”
Off-duty, she and Jamie had a running joke: taking stupid photographs, “smoking in front of a no-smoking sign or posing in front of statues, mimicking the pose. We took dumb pictures all the time. And so at Arlington [the national cemetery] we saw the Silence And Respect sign… and inspiration struck.”
Lindsey posed in front of it, pretending she was shouting and swearing – flipping the bird, and with her hand to her open mouth. “So,” Lindsey said, “thinking we were funny, Jamie posted it on Facebook and tagged me on it with my consent, because I thought it was hilarious.”
Nothing much happened after that. A few Facebook friends posted unenthusiastic comments. “One had served in the military and he wrote a message saying, ‘This is kind of offensive. I know you girls, but it’s tasteless.’ Another said, ‘I agree’, and another said, ‘I agree’. Then I said, ‘Whoa! It’s just us being douchebags! Forget about it!’”
After that, Jamie said to Lindsey, “Do you think we should take it down?”
“No!” Lindsey replied, “What’s the big deal? No one’s ever going to think of it again.”
Their Facebook settings were a mystery to them. Most of the privacy boxes were ticked. Some weren’t. Sometimes they’d half-notice that boxes they’d thought they’d ticked weren’t ticked.
Lindsey has been thinking about that “a lot” these past 18 months. “Facebook works best when everyone is sharing and liking. It brings their ad revenues up.”
Was there some Facebook shenanigan where things just “happen” to untick themselves? Some loophole? “I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist. I don’t know if Jamie’s mobile uploads had ever been private.”
Whatever: Jamie’s mobile uploads weren’t private. And four weeks after returning from Washington DC, they were in a restaurant, celebrating their birthdays – “We’re a week apart” – when they became aware that their phones were vibrating repeatedly. So they went online.
“Lindsey Stone hates the military and hates soldiers who have died in foreign wars”, “You should rot in hell”, “Just pure Evil”, “Spoke with an employee from Life who has told me there are veterans on the board and that she will be fired. Awaiting info on her accomplice”, “After they fire her, maybe she needs to sign up as a client. Woman needs help”, “Send the dumb feminist to prison”. There were death and rape threats.
“I wanted to scream: ‘It was just about a sign,’” Lindsey said.
By the time she went to bed that night, at 4am, a Fire Lindsey Stone Facebook page had been created. It attracted 12,000 likes. Lindsey read every comment. “I really became obsessed with reading everything about myself.”
The next day, camera crews had gathered outside her front door. Her father tried talking to them. He had a cigarette in his hand. The family dog had followed him out. As he tried to explain that Lindsey wasn’t a terrible person, he noticed the cameras move from his face down to the cigarette and the dog, as if they were a family of hillbillies.
Life was inundated with emails demanding their jobs, so Lindsey was called into work. But she wasn’t allowed inside the building. Her boss met her in the car park and told her to hand over her keys. “Literally overnight, everything I knew and loved was gone,” Lindsey said. And that’s when she fell into a depression, became an insomniac, and barely left home for a year.
That year, Lindsey scanned Craigslist for carer work, but nobody replied to her applications. She was eventually offered a job caring for children with autism. “But I’m terrified,” she said.
“That your bosses will find out?’
This was a likely scenario. The photograph was everywhere. It had become so iconic among swaths of rightwingers that one man had even turned it into patriotic wallpaper, superimposing on to the wall behind Lindsey’s shrieking face and upturned finger a picture of a military funeral, complete with a coffin draped in the American flag. Lindsey had wanted the job so much she’d been “nervous about even applying. I was conflicted on whether to say to them, ‘Just so you know, I am this Lindsey Stone.’ Because I knew it was just a mouse click away.” She left it until the moment of the interview. And then the interview was over and she found that she hadn’t mentioned it.
Now she’d been in the job four months, and she still hadn’t told them. “And obviously, you can’t ask them, ‘Have you noticed it and decided it’s not a problem?’” I said.
“Right,” Lindsey said.
“So you feel trapped in a paranoid silence?” I said.
“I love this job so much,” Lindsey said. “I love these kids. One of the parents paid me a really high compliment the other day. I’ve only been working with her son for a month and she was like, ‘The moment I met you, seeing the way you are with my son, and the way you treat people, you were meant to work in this field.’ But what if she found out? Would she feel the same way?”
Lindsey could never just be happy and relaxed. The terror was always there. “It really impacts the way you view the world. Since it happened, I haven’t tried to date anybody. How much do you let a new person into your life? Do they already know?”
The Village Pub in Woodside, near Menlo Park, Silicon Valley, looks like no big deal from the outside, but when you get inside, you realise it’s filled with tech billionaires. I had recently discovered the world of digital reputation management – companies that “game” Google to hide negative stories stored online. One of these companies is reputation.com, launched by my dining companion, Michael Fertik. I told Michael that he was the only person from that world who had returned my email.
“That’s because this is a really easy sector in which to be an unappealing, scurrilous operation,” he said.
“Scurrilous in what way?”
“There’s a guy who has some traction in our space, who runs a company – he’s a convicted rapist,” Michael said. “He started a company to basically obscure that fact about himself, I think.”
Michael’s competitors were disreputable, he said, and he needed to be vigilant with potential clients. “Very early on, within two weeks of launching our website in 2006, I remember being by myself and getting a couple of sign-ups from guys. So I Googled them. They were paedophiles.”
“Do you remember their names?” I asked.
“Of course not,” Michael said. “Why do you ask that shit?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Curiosity.”
Michael looked different from our fellow diners. I didn’t recognise any of them, but everyone seemed insanely rich: preppy, with faces like luxury yachts, like Martha’s Vineyard in the summer, Waspy and at peace with the world, practically floating through the restaurant, whereas Michael was a big, angry, coiled-spring Jewish bear of a man. He was born in New York, attained a degree from Harvard Law School, and invented the concept of online reputation management while working as a clerk for the US Court of Appeals in Louisville, Kentucky. This was the mid-2000s. Stories about cyberbullying and revenge porn were just starting to filter though, and that’s how Michael got the idea.
After he turned down the paedophiles, Michael told me, he noticed he was getting sign-ups from neo-Nazis, albeit repentant former ones. One said: “When I was 17, I was a Nazi. I was an asshole kid. Now I’m in my 40s, I’m trying to move on, but the internet still thinks I am a Nazi.”
They were more sympathetic than the paedophiles, but Michael still didn’t want them as clients. So he drew up a code of conduct: he wouldn’t accept anyone who was under investigation or had been convicted of a felony violent crime, or a felony fraud crime, or any sexually violent crime, or anyone accused – even informally – of a sexual crime against children. And, he said, there was another moral difference between him and his competitors: he wouldn’t invent fake accolades; he’d only put the truth up there. Although, “I don’t think it’s incumbent on anyone to do massive fact-checking.”
“I have no idea what you actually do,” I had told Michael on the telephone before we met. “Maybe I could follow someone though the process?”
And so we planned it out. We’d just need to find a willing client.
“Are there any hobbies you’re particularly passionate about right now? Marathons? Photography?”
Farukh Rashid was in San Francisco, talking down a conference line to Lindsey Stone. I was listening in from my sofa in New York. I’d met Farukh a few months earlier, when Michael’s publicist, Leslie, gave me a tour of the reputation.com offices: two open-plan floors with soundproofed booths for the sensitive calls to celebrity clients. She introduced me to Farukh and explained that he usually works on Michael’s VIP customers – the CEOs and celebrities.
“It’s nice that you’re giving Lindsey the bespoke service,” I said.
“She needs it,” Leslie replied.
She really did. Michael’s strategists had been researching Lindsey’s online life and had discovered nothing about her besides that Silence And Respect incident.
“That five seconds of her life is her entire internet presence?” I said.
Farukh nodded. “And it’s not just this Lindsey Stone. Anyone who has that name has the same problem. There are 60 Lindsey Stones in the US and they’re all being defined by that one photograph.”
“I’m sorry to have given you such a tricky one,” I said, feeling a little proud of myself.
“Oh, no, we’re excited,” Farukh replied. “We’re going to introduce the internet to the real Lindsey Stone.”
“Are cats important to you?” Farukh asked Lindsey, now down the conference line.
“Absolutely,” said Lindsey.
I heard Farukh type. He was young and energetic, and just as upbeat and buoyant and lacking in cynicism and malevolent irony as he was hoping to make Lindsey seem. His Twitter profile says he enjoys “biking, hiking and family time”. His plan was to create Lindsey Stone Tumblrs and LinkedIn pages and WordPress blogs and Instagram accounts and YouTube accounts to overwhelm that terrible photograph, wash it away in a tidal wave of positivity, away to a place on Google where normal people don’t look – a place like page two of the search results. According to Google’s own research, 53% of us don’t go beyond the first two search results, and 89% of us don’t look past the first page.
“I’m passionate about music,” Lindsey told Farukh.
“That’s really good,” Farukh said. “Let’s work with that. Do you play an instrument?”
“I used to,” Lindsey said. “I was kind of self-taught. It’s just something I mess around with. It’s not anything I…” Suddenly, she trailed off. she seemed self-conscious, as if the endeavour was giving her troubling existential thoughts: questions such as “Who am I?” and “What are we doing?”
“I’m having a hard time with this,” she said. “As a normal person I don’t really know how to brand myself online.”
“Piano? Guitar? Drums?” said Farukh. “Or travel? Where do you go?”
“I don’t know,” Lindsey said. “I go to the beach. I get ice-cream.”
At Farukh’s request, Lindsey had been emailing him photographs that didn’t involve her flipping off at military cemeteries. She’d been providing biographical details, too. Her favourite TV show was Parks And Recreation. Her employment history included five years at Walmart, “which was kind of soul-suckingly awful”.
“Are you sure you want to say that Walmart was soul-sucking?” Farukh said.
“Oh… What? Really?” Lindsey laughed, as if to say, “Come on! Everyone knows that about Walmart!” But then she hesitated. The conference call was proving an unexpectedly melancholic experience. It was nothing to do with Farukh. He really felt for Lindsey and wanted to do a good job for her. The sad thing was that Lindsey had incurred the internet’s wrath because she was impudent and playful and foolhardy and outspoken. And now here she was, working with Farukh to reduce herself to safe banalities – to cats and ice-cream and top 40 chart music. We were creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland.
There was a time when Michael Fertik wouldn’t have needed to be so calculating. Back in the mid-90s, search engines were interested only in how many times a particular keyword appeared within a page. To be the number-one Jon Ronson search term on AltaVista or HotBot, you just had to write Jon Ronson over and over again. Which, for me, would be the most fantastic website to chance upon, but for everyone else, less so.
But then two students at Stanford, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, had an idea: why not build a search engine that ranked websites by popularity instead? If someone is linking to your page, that’s one vote. If the page linking to your page has a lot of links into it, then that page counts for more votes. And that was it. They called their invention PageRank, after Larry Page.
This was why Farukh needed to create LinkedIn and Tumblr and Twitter pages for Lindsey. They come with a built-in high PageRank. The Google algorithm prejudges them as well-liked. But, for Michael, the problem with Google is that it is forever adjusting its algorithm in ways it keeps secret. “Google is a tricky beast and a moving target,” he told me, “so we try to decipher it, to reverse-engineer it.”
Knowing what he did about PageRank’s algorithm, Michael predicted that Lindsey’s love of cats (or whatever) would achieve “initial strong impact”, followed by “fluctuation”, and, after fluctuation, “reversion”.
Michael’s clients dread reversion. There’s nothing more dispiriting than seeing the nice new judgments disappear and the horrific old judgments bubble back up. But reversion is actually their friend, as Michael’s strategist, Jered Higgins, told me. “Reversion shows that the algorithm is uncertain,” he said. And during this uncertainty, Jered said, “We go in and blast it.”
The blasting – the bombardment of the algorithm with Tumblr pages about Lindsey’s trips to the beach, the shock and awe of these pleasant banalities – has to be choreographed just right. Google knows if it’s being manipulated (alarm bells go off) “so we have a strategic schedule for content creation and publication,” Jered said. “We create a natural-looking activity online. That’s a lot of accumulated intelligence.”
“I am a nobody,” Hank said. “Just a guy with a family and a job – a middle-America-type guy.”
Hank wasn’t his real name. He’d managed to keep that aspect of himself a secret. He was talking to me via a Google Hangout from his kitchen in a suburban house in an American town. He looked frail, fidgety.
On 17 March 2013, Hank was in the audience at a conference for tech developers in Santa Clara, California, when a stupid joke popped into his head, which he murmured to his friend, Alex.
“What was the joke?” I asked.
“It was so bad I don’t remember the exact words,” he said. “It was about a fictitious piece of hardware that has a really big dongle – a ridiculous dongle. We were giggling about that. It wasn’t even conversation-level volume.”
A few moments earlier, Hank and Alex had been giggling over some other tech in-joke about “forking someone’s repo”. “We’d decided it was a new form of flattery,” Hank explained. “A guy had been on stage presenting his new project, and Alex said, ‘I would fork that guy’s repo.’” (In tech jargon, to “fork” means to take a copy of another person’s software so you can work on it independently. Another word for software is “repository”. Just in case you wanted to know.)
Moments after making the dongle joke, Hank half-noticed the woman sitting in front of them stand up, turn around and take a photograph. Ten minutes later, a conference organiser came down the aisle and said to Hank and Alex, “Can you come with me?” They were taken into an office and told there’d been a complaint about sexual comments.
“I immediately apologised,” Hank said. “I knew exactly what they were talking about. I told them what we’d said, and that we didn’t mean for it to come across as a sexual comment, and that we were sorry if someone overheard and was offended. They were like, ‘OK. I see what happened.’”
And that was that. The incident passed. Hank and Alex were shaken up – “We’re nerdy guys, and confrontation isn’t something we handle well” – so they decided to leave the conference early. They were on their way to the airport when they started to wonder exactly how someone had conveyed the complaint to the conference organisers. The nightmarish possibility was that it had been communicated in the form of a public tweet. And so, with apprehension, they had a look.
They found a tweet from a woman, called Adria Richards, with a photo of them: “Not cool. Jokes about forking repo’s in a sexual way and ‘big’ dongles. Right behind me #pycon”.
Anxious, Hank quickly scanned her replies, but there was nothing much – just the odd congratulation from a few of her 9,209 followers for the way she’d “educated” the men behind her. He noticed ruefully that a few days earlier Adria Richards had herself tweeted a stupid penis joke. She’d suggested to a friend that he should put socks down his pants to bewilder security agents at the airport. Hank relaxed a little.
A day later, Hank was called into his boss’s office and fired.
“I packed up all my stuff in a box,” Hank said, “then I went outside to call my wife. I’m not one to shed tears but…” Hank paused. “When I got in the car with my wife, I just… I’ve got three kids. Getting fired was terrifying.”
That night, Hank made his only public statement. He posted a short message on the discussion board 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 three kids and I really liked that job. She gave me no warning, she smiled while she snapped the pic and sealed my fate.”
Ten months later, I was sitting opposite Adria Richards in a cafe at San Francisco airport. She seemed introverted and delicate, just the way Hank had come across over Google Hangout. She told me about the moment she overheard the comment about the big dongle. “Have you ever had an altercation at school and you could feel the hairs rise up on your back?” she asked me.
“You felt fear?” I asked.
“Danger,” she said. “Clearly my body was telling me, ‘You are unsafe.’”
Which was why, she said, even though she’d never before complained about sexual harassment, she “slowly stood up, rotated from my hips, and took three photos”. She tweeted one, “with a very brief summary of what they said. Then I sent another tweet describing my location. Right? And then the third tweet was the [conference’s] code of conduct.”
“You talked about danger,” I said. “What were you imagining might…?”
“Have you ever heard that thing, men are afraid that women will laugh at them and women are afraid that men will kill them?” she replied. “So. Yeah.”
I told Adria that people might consider that an overblown thing to say. She had, after all, been at a tech conference with 2,000 bystanders.
“Sure,” she replied. “And those people would probably be white and they would probably be male.”
“Somebody getting fired is pretty bad,” I said. “I know you didn’t call for him to be fired, but you must have felt pretty bad.”
“Not too bad,” she said. She thought more and shook her head decisively. “He’s a white male. I’m a black Jewish female. He was saying things that could be inferred as offensive to me, sitting in front of him. I do have empathy for him, but it only goes so far. If he had Down’s syndrome and he accidently pushed someone off a subway, that would be different… I’ve seen things where people are like, ‘Adria didn’t know what she was doing by tweeting it.’ Yes, I did.”
On the evening Hank posted his statement on Hacker News, outsiders began to involve themselves in his and Adria’s story. Hank started to receive messages of support, and then insults, from men’s rights bloggers. He didn’t respond to any of them. At the same time, Adria discovered she was getting discussed on a famous meeting place for trolls: 4chan/b/. “A father of three is out of a job because a silly joke he was telling a friend was overheard by someone with more power than sense. Let’s crucify this cunt.” “Kill her.” “Cut out her uterus with an xacto knife.”
Someone sent Adria a photograph of a beheaded woman with tape over her mouth. Adria’s face was superimposed on to the bodies of porn actors. Next, her employer’s website went down. Someone launched a DDoS attack, which overwhelms a site’s servers with repeated requests. SendGrid, her employer, was told the attacks would stop if she was fired. Within hours, she was fired.
‘‘SendGrid threw me under the bus,” she later emailed me. “I felt betrayed. I felt abandoned. I felt ashamed. I felt rejected. I felt alone.’’
The death threats and rape threats and racist insults continued even after she was fired.
“Things got very bad for her,” Hank told me. “She had to disappear for six months. Her entire life was being evaluated by the internet. It was not a good situation for her at all.”
“Have you met her since?” I asked him.
“No,” he replied.
Ten months had passed since the day Adria took that photograph, so I asked what he thought of her now. “I think that nobody deserves what she went through,” he replied.
“Maybe it was [Hank] who started all of this,” Adria told me in the cafe at San Francisco airport. “No one would have known he got fired until he complained… Maybe he’s to blame for complaining that he got fired. Maybe he secretly seeded the hate groups. Right?”
I was so taken aback by this suggestion that at the time I didn’t say anything in defence of Hank. But later I felt bad that I hadn’t stuck up for him. So I emailed Adria. I told her what he had told me – how he’d refused to engage with any of the bloggers or trolls who sent him messages of support. I added that I felt Hank was within his rights to post the message on Hacker News, revealing he’d been fired.
Adria replied that she was happy to hear that Hank “wasn’t active in driving their interests to mount the raid attack”, but that she held him responsible for it anyway. It was “his own actions that resulted in his own firing, yet he framed it in a way to blame me… If I had a spouse and two kids to support, I certainly would not be telling ‘jokes’ like he was doing at a conference. Oh, but wait, I have compassion, empathy, morals and ethics to guide my daily life choices. I often wonder how people like Hank make it through life seemingly unaware of how ‘the other’ lives in the same world he does, but with countless fewer opportunities.”
I asked Hank if he found himself behaving differently since the incident. Had it altered how he lived his life? “I distance myself from female developers a little bit now,” he replied. “I’m not as friendly. There’s humour, but it’s very mundane. You just don’t know. I can’t afford another Donglegate.”
“Give me an example,” I said. “So you’re in your new workplace [Hank was offered another job right away] and you’re talking to a female developer. In what way do you act differently towards her?’
“Well,” Hank said, “we don’t have any female developers at the place I’m working at now. So.”
“You’ve got a new job now, right?” I said to Adria.
“No,” she said.
Later, I saw another photograph Adria happened to take that day at the conference. It was an audience shot. A sea of men – practically only men – stretching to the horizon.
In October 2014, I took a final drive to visit Lindsey Stone. Four months had passed since I’d last spoken to her or Farukh – and given that they’d only taken her on for my benefit, I’d half-wondered if maybe it had all been quietly wound down in my absence.
“Oh God, no,” said Lindsey. We sat at her kitchen table. “They call me every week, week after week.” She took out her phone and scrolled through her innumerable emails from Farukh. She read out loud some blogs his team had written in her voice, about how it’s important when travelling to use the hotel safe – “Stay alert, travellers!” – and how, if you’re in Spain, you should try the tapas.
Lindsey got to pre-approve everything, and she’d only told them no twice, she said – to a blog about how much she’s looking forward to Lady Gaga’s upcoming jazz album (“I like Lady Gaga, but I’m not really excited about her jazz album”) and to her tribute to Disneyland on the occasion of its 50th birthday: “Happy Birthday Disneyland! The Happiest Place on Earth!” “Happy Birthday Disneyland!” Lindsey blushed. “I would never… I mean, I had a great time at Disneyland. But still…” She trailed off. “One of my friends from high school said, ‘I hope it’s still you. I want people to know how funny you are.’ But it’s scary. After all that’s happened, what’s funny to me… I don’t want to go anywhere near the line, let alone cross it. So I’m constantly saying, ‘I don’t know, Farukh, what do you think?’”
“This journey started with my identity being hijacked by a spambot,” I said. “Your personality has been taken by strangers twice now. But at least this second time around it’s nice.”
Lindsey hadn’t typed her name into Google for 11 months. The last time had been a shock: it was Veterans’ Day, and she found some ex-army people “wondering where I was, and not in a good way”.
“They were thinking about tracking you down so they could re-destroy you?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. She hadn’t looked since. And now she swallowed and began to type: L… I… N…
Lindsey shook her head, stunned. “This is monumental,” she said.
Two years ago, the photograph stretched to Google Images horizon – uninterrupted, mass-production shaming, “pages and pages and pages”, Lindsey said, “repeating endlessly. It felt so huge. So oppressive.” And now: nearly gone. There was still a scattering, and there would inevitably be some reversion, but for now there were lots of photographs of Lindsey doing nothing bad. Just smiling.
Even better, there were lots of photographs of other Lindsey Stones – people who weren’t her at all. There was a Lindsey Stone volleyball player, a Lindsay Stone competitive swimmer. The swimmer had been captured mid-stroke, moments from winning the New York State 500-yard freestyle championship. It was captioned, “Lindsay Stone had the right plan in place and everything was going exactly to plan.”
Here was a whole other person, doing something everyone could agree was lovely and commendable. There was no better result than that.
- This is an edited extract from So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson, published next month by Picador at £16.99. To order a copy for £13.59, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846.
• This article was amended on 21 February 2015 to move the Arlington picture further down the article. It was further amended on 22 February 2015 to remove a sentence that suggested Hank was fired after Adria Richards wrote a blogpost. This was incorrect; a production error meant the sentence was not removed earlier in the editing process.