A few weeks ago, I had a drink with my friend Justine Sacco and we talked about what makes for a good Tweet.
Justine is an easy person to like — frank, funny, quick to laugh. To a reporter, she’s the kind of flack who’s all too rare, the kind who doesn’t stop being a person when she badges in for the day at work. Although a tough and forceful advocate for her employers, I could trust her not to waste my time or feed me a line, even when we found ourselves at cross purposes. While we’ve never hung out socially, I’ve always enjoyed the occasional lunch or drink we’d have to catch up.
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It was over such a drink a few weeks ago that the subject of Twitter came up. Although she’d been using the service for several years, Justine was still figuring out its nuances. One thing she’d noticed was that people seemed to like the Tweets that were just a little bit risque or outrageous. She mentioned a recent post about Jimmy Fallon seeming like a “grateful lover,” which had gotten a strong response.
I flashed back to this conversation on Friday after Justine set off an avalanche of fury — on Twitter, on Facebook and in the news media across the globe — by tweeting, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
In the many, many blog posts and social media threads that ensued, “racist” was the word that was most frequently used to characterize this joke. That was not my reaction. I interpreted it as a self-deprecating joke about white guilt and Western privilege — about the sheepish feeling of being physically close to tragedy while remaining safe in an economic and cultural bubble. Others have told me they read it much the same way, even without knowing the author. “I think she was more mocking the aloofness white people can have on this issue, not celebrating that aloofness,” says one friend.
That reading doesn’t erase all grounds for offense, of course. There are still plenty of people who will never think it’s OK to make a joke involving AIDS, for starters. More to the point, perhaps, the very act of making a joke that like and assuming other people will receive it the way you intended it betrays an ethnocentrism, a blinkered worldview. I think that’s what Justine was getting at in her apology when she described her joke as “cavalier” and “insensitive.”
Compounding the bad judgment was a perfect storm of circumstances. Stuck on a plane for hours, Justine was unaware of the outrage she’d sparked, unable to delete or attempt to explain it. That allowed the affair to swell into a real-time news event that was fascinating even to spectators who had no particular feelings about it. Justine’s professional affiliation with billionaire Barry Diller and his well-known companies made her seem important, not just some random crank; a number of other ill-advised tweets provided fresh fodder and the outline of a caricature; her job as a communications professional lent the whole episode an irresistible irony.
Now IAC has fired her, and Justine has apologized. Both were inevitable. So what else is there to say?
Only this, maybe: Justine Sacco was not the first person to get herself fired for saying something stupid on Twitter. She won’t be the last. Every medium and technology ever invented carries its own perils, but there’s something about social media in general and Twitter in particular that invites and rewards self-damaging behavior.
Because it’s in real-time, we shoot from the hip, pushing “Tweet” without taking a moment to self-edit, lest we miss the moment. Because it’s short-form, we leave out context that might make our meaning clear. Because the feedback of other users is such a central part of the experience, we learn to seek it, tailoring our voices over time to maximize our retweets and favorites. And because it’s such a big, noisy party, we come to learn — as Justine did — that it helps to be just a little bit outrageous.
If you’ve never Tweeted something you’ve regretted, good for you. I know I have. Lucky for me I was not about to board an international flight at the time.
Another recent conversation I had was with Nick Denton, the owner of Gawker Media. Nick thinks social media is helping to liberalize society and make us more forgiving of each others’ flaws. A few years ago, he says, appearing in someone’s Facebook photo looking drunk at a party seemed like a career-killer in a way it doesn’t anymore. Why? Because so many of us at this point have been photographed holding a bottle of tequila, or a joint, or in some other compromising scenario that most of us have realized that to make a big stink of it each time would be mutually assured destruction. Similarly, the more employers and institutions learn about us as human beings, the less they can afford to judge us while still having access to the best candidates.
I think there’s some truth to that. I also think we, as consumers of technologies, get savvier about them over time; my colleague Kashmir Hill points to the way many teenagers now use temporary deactivation of their Facebook accounts as a privacy control. And I think technology often evolves to help save us from ourselves. How many leaks of nude or otherwise embarassing selfies has Snapchat prevented?
But there will always be a learning curve, and there will always be those of us who take the curve too fast and go plunging through the guardrail. The faster technology evolves, the more of us will end up taking the plunge. It’s comforting to think it will only happen to those who deserve it, but it’s far from the case.