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Justine Has Landed But The Feathers Are Still Flying

December 24, 2013

Social media signsIn a well-known Chasidic tale, a rabbi wishes to demonstrate the consequences of lashon hara to a habitual gossip. He has the man cut open a pillow and scatter the feathers to the wind.

“Now gather up every last feather,” the rabbi tells him. “That’s what it’s like trying to get back the gossip one spreads.”

Flash forward to December 2013. Substitute “tweet” for “lashon hara” and you have the sad lesson we learn from Justine Sacco.

Justine was senior director of communications at InterActiveCorp (IAC), the parent company of Vimeo, OkCupid, CollegeHumor, Dictionary.com, and other web sites. On Friday morning, she posted an offensive tweet before boarding an 11-hour flight from London to Cape Town, South Africa. I choose not to quote the tweet verbatim but basically, she joked about getting AIDS because she was going to Africa, a concern she then dismissed on the basis that she is white. This is offensive on so many levels that I don’t know where to begin, but that’s not the part of the story I wish to discuss.

Sacco’s personal Twitter account could only boast of a mere 200 or so followers. That’s tiny. Family, friends and a few co-workers, I’d imagine. I mean, being the communications director at IAC is nice, but it’s not like she’s Beyoncé, so who’s going to see it? A college roommate, two exes and cousin Sophie. Except it didn’t play out that way.

Someone emailed Justine’s post to an online editor, who posted it on BuzzFeed. To say that it fed buzz is an understatement; it fueled outrage. The online media jumped on this and it became a balagan. (That’s a modern Hebrew term for pandemonium.) People were calling her stupid. People were calling her racist. At least one person hoped that Justine actually did get AIDS. (That’s certainly an over-reaction; refer to my article here.) Justine was still in the air with hours to go and the world wanted an explanation. The hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet was trending with 100,000 or so mentions. The story became worldwide news while Justine was still in the air, on a plane without Wi-Fi.

One can only speculate as to the reaction she faced upon landing. I can’t imagine the people of South Africa were too happy to meet her. Here’s what’s not surprising: after landing and learning about the Twitterstorm – and that she was one of the most hated people on the planet – Justine deleted not only her Twitter account but her Facebook and Instagram accounts as well. And she found herself out of a job.

Here’s the irony: Justine was a media and communications professional. Even though this was her chosen field and her area of expertise, she completely underestimated the power of the medium. But that’s understandable: just try to get something online to have anywhere near the coverage that her story received. It’s not easy. If the article you are currently reading were to receive one-hundredth the attention that #HasJustineLandedYet did, I’d be ecstatic. The reality is that one can’t make a phenomenon occur at will. The public will pick up on the things they choose, not the things we want them to.

So Justine couldn’t predict this, even with her insider’s perspective. With perhaps a few exceptions, I’m guessing that those reading this are not communications directors at international media firms. Do you think you can forecast the next Twitterstorm, Facebook blizzard or YouTube typhoon? I know I can’t.

Sometimes the world latches on to good deeds, like the police officer last year ‘caught’ buying boots for a homeless man. Sometimes we like things that are silly and innocuous, like the viral video of a child’s disoriented ramblings while coming out of dental anesthesia. Too often, however, we focus on one another’s shortcomings.

We all have shortcomings. And trust me, they will be apparent enough to the world without us having to highlight them. There’s no reason for us to broadcast them. What we need is a filter. A censor switch. At the very least, we need a pause button to make us think, “Is this a good idea?” before we hit “send.”

Once upon a time, we used to warn young people to use discretion as their Twitter feeds and Facebook pages might be seen by college admissions officers, potential employers and future dating prospects. As the case of Justine Sacco demonstrates, the stakes are actually higher than we ever imagined. You’ve heard it before but it bears repeating: everything we put online is there forever. We may delete it, but someone has taken a screenshot, copied it, downloaded it and/or forwarded it. It’s on the servers. It’s out there and, like the feathers in the pillow, it’s never coming back.

Post wisely.

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