A fascinating article in the New York Times this weekend continues to bother me even now, a few days after I read it. It’s called “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life” and it describes that one tweet that Ms. Sacco posted right before boarding a plane to South Africa and its incredible consequences. It also talks about a few other social media posts that led to unforeseen, negative consequences. Go ahead and read it, I’ll wait.
What bothers me in the story is what obviously caught the writer’s attention as well: the completely disproportionate response to an insensitive remark made in almost privacy. At least that’s how Ms. Sacco described it and I see her side of it all too well. She tweeted to her 170 followers, not thinking through the racial implications. She believed she was posting to friends, her small circle of followers. She also tweeted under her real name, seeing no reason to do otherwise. As she said in the article, she didn’t think the tweet through, she didn’t consider how it would be interpreted, otherwise she never would have posted it. But who does?
That belief is not rare on Twitter. A regular user, not a celebrity or social media rock star, can be pretty invisible. The average user has 208 followers (sadly this is a stat from 2012 and I wish I had one for average followers of active Twitter users) which generally don’t create any kind of viral response. I’m guessing that the majority of Twitter users are happy to get some sort of engagement every, say, 4-5 tweets.
The only reason that Ms. Sacco’s tweet reached the audience that it did was because it was shared by Sam Biddle, then at Valleywag, who also shared that Ms. Sacco was the head of PR of a company, implying that she really, really should know better. He was the one that exposed her misstep to a much larger audience. He was also relentless in following up on how she responded and her attempts to resume a normal life after the incident. He has since apologized but I wonder if he would act differently now if presented with a similar situation. “This woman’s job was carefully managing the words of a large tech-media conglomerate, and she’d worded something terribly” he said in his apology. True, he said “I never wake up and hope I [get someone fired] that day — and certainly never hope to ruin anyone’s life.” But were there any consequences to his tweet, even if not as severe as Ms. Sacco’s? No.
I suppose the moral if this tale, if there even is one, is that public means public. Everyone can see your post, not just the people you think are seeing it. Second, that almost everyone has something to lose by posting something controversial under their real name. Current or future employers, universities and other institutions, or even partners or potential voters: all look at social media history.
“Dance like nobody’s watching” just doesn’t have a social media equivalent.