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Episode 15: Interview with Jon Ronson

On this episode of Relate, you'll hear a wide-ranging conversation with writer, author, and presenter Jon Ronson. He'll talk about his relationships with people on the fringe of society: extremists, conspiracy theorists, psychopaths, new age soldiers, pornographers, and internet trolls. His secret to connecting with these individuals? Curiosity. Ronson will share stories about how his curiosity has created the most fascinating stories, and how he often finds himself in bizarre and sometimes dangerous situations. He'll also tease his brand new podcast The Butterfly Effect, a series following the surprising consequences of our online lives.

Featured in this episode:

Don't miss Jon Ronson at Relate Live NYC, October 23rd-25th, 2017. He'll kick off day two with his keynote, “How to be curious.”

Transcript

TAMARA STANNERS: Psychopaths. Porn stars. Conspiracy theorists. Internet trolls. Avant-garde musicians. New age psychic spies. Genetically modified giant super pigs. Just a few of the topics that are interesting to writer and journalist and radio host Jon Ronson. He's what's happening on Relate this week. I'm Tamara Stanners and today on Relate a feature interview with Jon Ronson. He is the brilliant author, radio host, screen writer, gonzo journalist, and all around fascinating guy that our producer, Andy Shepherd, had the absolute pleasure, am I right? To sit down and chat with.

ANDY SHEPPARD: He's just the kind of guy you want to hang out with, right? He's just super interesting.

TAMARA STANNERS: Oh I was so jealous of you.

ANDY SHEPPARD: Well, I've been a big fan of his work for a long time. I mean The Psychopath Test is one of my favorite books, it's so crazy. It dives into the strange word of sociopath and psychopaths and trying to identify who among us is a psychopath. And it turns out it's not so easy.

TAMARA STANNERS: No kidding. And then there's The Men Who Stare at Goats.

ANDY SHEPPARD: Yeah, there's the book, and the movie that George Clooney was in ...

TAMARA STANNERS: Well both.

ANDY SHEPPARD: Yeah, they're both awesome.

TAMARA STANNERS: So good, because it's that story of the real life US military program where they tried to use paranormal techniques, like psychic spying for warfare.

ANDY SHEPPARD: Yup, these guys would sit there, staring at goats, trying to stop their hearts.

TAMARA STANNERS: Amazing.

ANDY SHEPPARD: Just bizarre. And as you know, true story.

TAMARA STANNERS: And then there's So You've Been Publicly Shamed.

ANDY SHEPPARD: So this is an important book that Jon Ronson wrote about online shaming. And we're going to get into that in a little bit more depth later on. There's so much to discover in his work. But it seems that there's this common theme, and it's the fringe of society. Outsiders. He's really empathetic to people who don't fit the mainstream. And in fact he's developed relationships with a lot of these people. Like with Alex Jones, the famous conspiracy theorist guy. But I wanted to start the interview by getting a sense of how he came to the fringe in the first place.

JON RONSON: When I was a kid in school, growing up in Cardiff in Wales, I was kind of the outsider. I was sort of pushed to the edges of the playground. And so I kind of naturally gravitate towards the edges of society. When I was starting out, like at the very beginning of my career, when I was just like sort of young and ambitious and wanting to make it, I suppose part of me wanted to sort of go to the fringes of society to kind of maybe make fun of people. And then I'd be more popular. But that didn't last long luckily. Because that's not how somebody should live their life.

Quite soon I realized that people who were demonized or ridiculed quite often had really interesting perspectives. And found in the kind of humanity in demonized people on the fringes, taught you more about them and it taught you more about us. So very quickly I guess I sort of changed my perspective about people like that and became much more empathetic.

TAMARA STANNERS: So he arrives at this insight that the freaks and the square pegs and the trolls of the window are actually a window into humanity?

ANDY SHEPPARD: Yeah, I mean his approach was not just to look at them through a window, but actually jump through the window and join them.

JON RONSON: I started off by always inserting myself in the stories. Mainly because all the people I was a fan of back when I started out did that. People like [Andrea Thompson 00:04:13]and P.J. O'Rourke, I guess Tom Wolfe, that kind of, it was called the new journalism at the time. And I loved it. And I thought those people were just so mysterious and exciting. I think it's good for a number of reasons. I think it's good because it's quite easy for me, it's like a natural narrative for me. Like I get on a train, then I get off the train, and then I go and meet somebody. And then that person tells me to go somewhere else, it's like, and then I kind of get out of my depth, it just came very naturally as a way of constructing a narrative.

But as the years progressed, I think, there was another good reason for inserting myself in my stories which was sort of turning the lens on myself and my own sort of foibles and frailties and gray areas and mistakes and so on. If you're the kind of writer who sort of treats yourself as this kind of perfect person, and you are kind of representative of righteous society, then that cuts off a lot of possibilities for learning. So I always like to think of myself as a more kind of unreliable and flawed narrator. Especially if I'm writing about unreliable and flawed people, it means that it's much more kind of empathetic relationship.

ANDY SHEPPARD: So it's not a totally objective approach, but I think it's really brave.

TAMARA STANNERS: No kidding.

ANDY SHEPPARD: Especially the way that he exposes his own flaws, you know, it's a very vulnerable approach. And it really does help you, the listener or the reader or the watcher to kind of empathize with the characters in his stories.

TAMARA STANNERS: Now I kind of get that, but I have a really difficult time understanding how you empathize with the trolls. Like the people who are so hurtful.

ANDY SHEPPARD: Yeah, these guys are basically being online jerks, right?

TAMARA STANNERS: Right.

ANDY SHEPPARD: But I think part of that is just exploring the slippery slope I guess, that it's possible for any of us to behave that way under the right conditions.

JON RONSON: Even though on Twitter we all like to see ourselves as nonconformists, when we all kind of get together to tear somebody down. It's conformity. It's like we're defining the boundaries of normality by ripping apart somebody on the outside. And that's such a, it's such a kind of conformist and authoritarian thing to do.

I was listening to Zadie Smith doing an interview the other day ...

ANDY SHEPPARD: Zadie Smith is another novelist and short story writer.

JON RONSON: She said something that I've always thought but I never sort of heard it put this way before. She said why are we surprised when academics plagiarize. Or when it turns out that a politicians had an affair. Why does that always surprise us? We know that people are a mess, because we're all a mess. Like, we've all got secrets, we've all got flaws. And I thought that was such a kind of smart way of putting it. Because it's true. But on social media we like to pretend to ourselves that that's not true. We pretend to ourselves that like one person’s slight mistake is evidence of the entirety of their person. Like one bad tweet is like a clue to that persons overall evil.

And what that is, it's judgementalism, instead of curiosity. And the older I get the more I realize that it's much better to be curious and to reserve judgment than to be instantly judgemental. Like the most woke people, part of wokeness right now in society is to be judgemental. And to sort of know all about that persons' badness without hearing any evidence about that person. That's the kind of fashionable way to be these days. And I just don't think it's the right way to be.

TAMARA STANNERS: It is so true, and really quite shocking when you see it online all the time. People telegraphing their righteousness.

ANDY SHEPPARD: Yeah, and not recognizing their own flaws. So I don't know about you but I tend to stay out of those online diatribes and pile-ons just because I've seen how awful it can get. But it's precisely these nasty, sometimes cruel places that Jon Ronson wants to explore. So at this point in the interview I wanted to get a sense of what was behind his willingness to take on all these controversial stories and people and ideas. Especially since it often gets him into trouble. Like his personal safety is sometimes at risk.

JON RONSON: I feel this kind of obsessive need to follow a story to where the story ends. And on several occasions that's taken me into dangerous situations. Go to Jihad training camps, or a Ku Klux Klan compounds or getting kind of chased by the henchmen of globalist clubs, like the Bilderburg group or so on. Like kind of properly dangerous areas. But I don't enjoy that. I take no, I have no adrenaline rush for being with the Ku Klux Klan or anything like that. I consider that to be a kind of terrible thing that I'm sort of forced to do to follow the story. I kind of feel like this need to follow the story wherever it takes me. So it's curiosity is what drives me. I don't think I could write a book where I wasn't genuinely curious. And this creates a problem I think, for me, because the older I get and the more books I write, the more mysterious I feel I've solved, so each time I write a book I can't go back to that area. I can't go back to ... I don't feel I can go back to mental health because I wrote The Psychopath Test so I feel like I understand that. I can't go back to conspiracy's because I wrote them. I can't go back to social media, because I wrote So You've Been Publicly Shamed. So, each time I have an adventure, it cuts off like a whole area of research for me. Because if there's no curiosity there, if there's no mystery then I can't do it.

I'll give an example. I've known the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones for like twenty years.

ALEX JONES: The evidence is clear, the military industrial complex was intimately involved in 911. The commission is a complete fraud. We're losing our freedoms and we're losing our control and if we don't wake-[crosstalk 00:11:16]

JON RONSON: Alex was recently publicly diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder. And I thought, that's so interesting, maybe I should write something about narcissistic personality disorder. And Alex, and my relationship with Alex, particularly now that Alex is kind of close friends with Trump. And I thought maybe it would be a way in to writing about Trump. And then I just sort of felt this kind of, and weak, because I thought if I'm going to write something about narcissistic personality disorder, I know how this is going to pan out. It's going to become a sort of ambiguous story about who are the real narcissists, is the ones who have been diagnosed with the disorder, or is it the ones who do the diagnosing?

And then I thought, god I know this. I can't write this. I'd love to write it, but I can't because I know it. So it's like, it's the not knowing that's like the wind behind the sails.

ANDY SHEPPARD: So one of the big things that came up in our discussion was consequences, how the internet sometimes feels like a consequence free zone.

TAMARA STANNERS: Yeah, like I can say whatever. I can watch whatever I want. I can buy whatever I want.

ANDY SHEPPARD: This is where his curiosity was leading him. First in his book So You've Been Publicly Shamed. And then in his new podcast, it's called The Butterfly Effect.

JON RONSON: Two things happened when I was writing So You've Been Publicly Shamed, which kind of led me into doing The Butterfly Effect. One was, I was writing about this woman called Justine Sacco who tweeted just before getting on a plane to Cape Town, she tweeted, "Going to Africa, hope I don't get AIDs, just kidding. I'm white." And then she got on the plane. Then while she was asleep on the plane her life just changed forever because Twitter took over.

Anyway I was interviewing the guy who kind of started the onslaught against Justine Sacco, this guy called, he was Gawker journalist called Sam Biddle, and I asked him how it felt, and he said it felt delicious. And then he said, but I'm sure she's fine now. And I thought, that's so interesting. We don't want to think about consequences when we're on the internet. We don't like thinking about consequences, we want to hurt people but not feel bad about it. So that stayed with me.

And the other thing that stayed with me, was I was meeting this porn woman, called Princess Donna, and I was in my hotel room, I was staying at the Chateau Marmot. This fancy hotel in Los Angeles. And the receptionist said your guest is waiting for you downstairs. So I went downstairs and everybody in the lobby was wearing basically what I'm wearing right now, which is kind of dull, inconspicuous colors, except for Princess Donna. Who looked like this kind of mad peacock, wearing kind of bright colors and as I walked towards her I looked over at the reception and he was looking at her.

And I don't think anybody that he was being looked at as he was looking at her and the look on his face was one of like total contempt. And it made me think, I don't know if he recognized her as a porn start or not, but I think he assumed that she was some form of sex worker. And it made me think, wow, people are only comfortable with porn people when they're on their computers. And not when they're in their vicinity. And that reminded me of Sam Biddle tearing about Justine Sacco and then thinking I'm sure she's fine now.

So I wanted to do something about consequences. So, I started to think like with contempt comes incuriousness.

TAMARA STANNERS: Whoa, that is a heavy line. With contempt comes incuriousness.

ANDY SHEPPARD: I know, it makes you want to check your contempt or your dismissal of people at the door. Because it stops you from understanding so much about people.

JON RONSON: So I became curious about porn people. Like, what are their concerns. So I started reading blogs written by porn people and what I discovered very quickly was that a lot of them were concerned about one very specific thing. Which was a man called Fabian, who was a Brussels tech entrepreneur, who inven- He actually didn't invent porno, but he popularized porno and this huge amount of money went from the porn community in San Fernando Valley through to Fabiens pocket. And Fabien gave the world readily available free porn. Fabian never pirated porn himself. But what he did was give the world the ability to pirate porn. And the world did do that. So, suddenly, porn became free for everybody, whatever age they were, you could just watch free porn. And all of this is very recent, this is like 2010.

So I wondered like, what are the consequences of that. Like, if I follow consequence through to consequence, where will it take me? And the whole of the series The Butterfly Effect is me doing that. So, the starting point is Fabien giving the world free porn. And everything that happens in this series is a consequence of that. But it goes to really far out places. To give you one example, by the end of episode two, chasing consequence, there's a consequence a man in Norway is setting fire to his stamp collection. That's the thing I love most about this series. It takes you out and out and out.

Like somebody said to me it needs to start with porn and end at NASA. And I kind of think we've sort of achieved that. It doesn't end at NASA, but it does end with people setting fire to stamp collections.

ANDY SHEPPARD: So you can hear Jon Ronson's new podcast, The Butterfly Effect. It's on Audible.com. And he was also involved in writing the new feature film Okja. That's the one about the genetically modified giant super pigs that you mentioned at the top of the show. And that one's on Netflix.

TAMARA STANNERS: Thank you so much for that interview Andy.

ANDY SHEPPARD: It was really my pleasure. I want to do another one because you just want to hang out with this guy and just hear his perspective, he's so interesting.

TAMARA STANNERS: Take me next time.

ANDY SHEPPARD: Okay, I will.

TAMARA STANNERS: Speaking of meeting Jon Ronson live, or at least seeing him live, if any of what you just heard tweaked your curiosity about him, Jon is one of the featured speakers at the up coming Relate Live New York. Which happens October 23rd through 25th. So if you want to get more of those fascinating ideas in person, you can sign up for the conference.

Podcast listeners get a $200 discount when they sign up at Relate.zendesk.com/live. And use the promo code podcast. Lots of great speakers, including Daymond John from Shark Tank, Caroline Bechtel from Pinterest, Dorie Rosenberg from Facebook, and many other thought leaders who can help you take your customer service to new heights. Again that's Relate Live New York. October 23rd through 25th. Visit Relate.zendesk.com/live and enter the promo code podcast.

That's it for Relate this week. Next week we'll dive into your relationship with your phone. Are you addicted to it? Are you obsessed by it? Could you not live without it? Digital detox expert Martin Talks will be here to help you draw the line with your technology. So you can stay productive and healthy and human.

You can subscribe to Relate on Apple podcasts, or wherever you listen. In the meantime, for more articles on connecting to your customers in deeper ways, visit Relate.zendesk.com. And if you want to explore technology built to improve your customer interactions, head over to zendesk.com for a free trial. I'm Tamara Stanners, talk to you soon.

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