The other day I read an article that was scarier than anything Stephen King ever wrote. Jon Ronson's February 12, 2015, article in the New York Times Magazine describes How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco's Life. On December 20, 2013, Sacco, a PR rep for Internet service firm IAC, was traveling to South Africa to visit family for the holidays. In a misguided attempt to be funny, she tweeted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” just a few minutes before boarding her 11-hour flight from New York City to Cape Town.
Upon landing in Cape Town, Sacco turned on her phone and saw a text message from a friend from high school she hadn't spoken to since they graduated: "I'm so sorry to see what's happening." That was just the first of an explosion of messages and alerts. When Sacco's phone rang, her best friend informed her that Sacco was "the No. 1 worldwide trend on Twitter."
As Ronson explains, Sacco's fate had become entertainment. Everyone knew she was going to get fired: her employer had posted that she was on an international flight and unreachable. People knew she would arrive to a firestorm she probably couldn't have anticipated. Someone even made a special trip to the Cape Town airport to capture her picture as she deplaned; the image was promptly posted online.
Ronson provides several other examples of people who have been shamed online following inappropriate social-media posts. In addition to being fired, the people often have their personal information exposed. However, when a programmer lost his job following a comment he made on an airplane that a nearby passenger overheard, considered sexist, and tweeted about, the backlash against the tweeter included death threats and posting of her home address. Her employer's site was hit by a distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attack. She lost her job, too.
In Sacco's case, she ended up moving to Ethiopia for a month, where she volunteered doing PR for a charity that combats maternal mortality. She got a job when she returned to New York but was still subject to ridicule on social media. Now Sacco avoids bringing any kind of attention to herself.
That is the moral of the tale: Sacco's joke was an attempt to gain the attention of strangers. The thousands of people criticizing her were likewise rewarded by gaining the attention of the strangers who egged them on. Social media boils down to a series of attempts to get people to pay attention to you -- usually the more attention your post garners, the better. (Be careful what you wish for.)
How not to use social media: 10 rules to post by
Rule No. 1: Online is forever. You can try to remove a post you regret, but data moves so quickly and unpredictably around the Internet that you can't anticipate where the content may end up. (Back in 2011 I wrote an article describing how to remove embarrassing YouTube videos and untag Facebook photos.)
Rule No. 2: Don't be negative. Not necessarily easy to do in this modern world of ours, but negative comments tend to reflect poorly on the commenter, and may engender sympathy for the intended target of the comment.
Rule No. 3: Irony, sarcasm, and other forms of humor don't always translate to the Internet. Ronson provides the example of an inside joke between two friends who traded photos of themselves disobeying signs, such as smoking in front of a "No Smoking" sign. One of the photos showed one of the friends acting up in front of a "Silence and Respect" sign at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Four weeks later, someone came across the photo and shared it widely. The person in the photo was fired, but that was just the beginning of her woes. She was homebound for a year as she struggled to overcome the PTSD that resulted from the sharing.
Rule No. 4: Go easy on the selfies. Several people were taken to task for posting selfies with an ongoing hostage siege in the background. Others posed in dangerous proximity to bears, tigers, and other wild animals. Vanity, thy name is "selfie."
Rule No. 5: Feeling emotional? Stay offline. This goes double if you're tipsy. It goes triple if you're angry.
Rule No. 6: Don't let other people tag you in Facebook photos. The Facebook Privacy Settings page has instructions for changing this setting.
Rule No. 7: "TMI" is more than just another "TLA" (three-letter acronym). Are you sure you want to provide that much detail about your life? Really, really sure? If you're not, try the living-room test: Would you share that much information with a group of friends sitting in your living room? Better yet, try the interview test: How would the information go over with a group of potential employers?
Rule No. 8: Check your spelling and grammar. Okay, some such errors can be forgiven -- especially those introduced by auto-correct gone awry. But even the deepest, most profound sentiments can be sabotaged by a simple, easily correctable error.
Rule No. 9: Unless you're the company social-media maven (that is, you're getting paid to post), don't post anything about the place you work, about the people you work with, about the people you work for, or about your customers and clients. Don't post at work, in the company parking lot, or anywhere near the place you work. I am fully cognizant of the fact that this advice will be roundly ignored, but don't say I didn't warn you!
Rule No. 10: Last but not least, don't incriminate yourself. Don't post pictures of you or anyone you know breaking the law. Don't admit to violating copyrights by downloading music or videos illegally. Don't lie -- especially about people. As with Rule No. 9, I know this admonition will not register with many people, which is sure to delight law enforcement officials and defense attorneys everywhere.
It's human nature to want people to notice you. Just make sure they're doing so for the right reasons.