Digital-Age Lessons: Don’t Get “Sacco-ed!”


Justine Sacco

Photo: Justine Sacco via Facebook

Kashmir Hill recently wrote an article for Forbes entitled “Justine Sacco’s Nightmare Before Christmas, Twitter Version.” She describes Ms. Sacco’s poor choice in composing and (unfortunately for her) sending ‘the tweet heard around the world,’ or what some are calling “the worst tweet of the year.” What was no doubt meant as a tongue-in-cheek expression issued as she was departing on a trip to Africa had repercussions from which she is still reeling. The tweet was:

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

Kashmir does a fantastic job of reporting on the incident and the aftermath, so click the link above for more details. What I want to focus on is the blending of our personal and private lives in the digital age, what that means, and steps we can take to handle the merger in a practical way.

Is Separating our Professional and Private Lives Possible?

We’ve all been taught to keep our professional and private lives separate. To some extent, that’s sound advice. To the best of our abilities, we compartmentalize the two, keeping work problems at work and home issues at home. It’s considered unprofessional to bring troubles we’re experiencing at home into the workplace, and it’s unfair to take pressures from work home so that our families feel the burden. Of course, we’re human, and the preceding is easier said than done – but we try (where to draw the line and how best to manage the separation is another topic).

In light of Ms. Sacco’s experience, it is clear that our digital age brought about what many consider a paradigm shift. With the advent of social media, suddenly we find our private thoughts shared with a wider circle of friends and associates than ever before. Even if we keep our profiles private and share with a select few, there is always the possibility that someone in that inner circle shares a post with their network. If we hold a position of authority, this sharing takes on added meaning. In Ms. Sacco’s case, serving as a senior Public Relations person for a corporate giant like IAC put her in that category. Sam Biddle at Valleywag first reported her tweet, and then it went viral. IAC was quick to distance themselves, first from Ms. Sacco’s response and then from Ms. Sacco herself. All of this proves that our professional and private lives are no longer separate and distinct.

However, is this really something new? Sure, the technology that permits the ready sharing of our thoughts is innovative. Yet the underlying concept highlighted by the case of Justine Sacco is not. What is that principle? One article, commenting on what it means to be a Christian, said “We are Christians 24 hours a day. Scriptural principles need to be applied in every aspect of our lives. Hence, Paul urged us: ‘Whatever you are doing, work at it whole-souled as to Jehovah, and not to men.’ – Colossians 3:18-24.” Whether or not you are a Christian isn’t the point. The guiding principle is that you are who you are 24/7. That means your speech, conduct, and grooming should reflect a fine personality at all times. If that’s true, then our use of social media becomes an extension of who we are, not simply a calculated attempt at projecting an image.

Two things may mistakenly jump out at you when reading the above statement. The first is that I’m suggesting social media efforts don’t require forethought. If you got that impression, I apologize. A haphazard approach to social media is a recipe for disaster. Rather, what I’m suggesting is that becoming the kind of person whose thoughts reflect respect and concern for others will naturally seep into our social media efforts. Thus, when planning what to say, your internal compass will automatically point you in a direction that reflects respect of others, thus (hopefully) negating any verbal or written faux pas. The second thing you may perceive is that I’m suggesting we need to be perfect. Once again, that’s not my intention. None of us are perfect. We all make mistakes, sometimes costly ones. Justine Sacco is a prime example. It takes work to navigate the pitfalls of our modern world. What may be acceptable in one setting is completely offensive in another. Additionally, while one group may laugh at a particular expression, another will vilify you for saying the same thing. Add the fact that we’ve all heard things said during our lives that were less-than-flattering of certain individuals or groups of people, statements which are still floating around somewhere in our brains, waiting for an (often inopportune) occasion to slip out. No doubt this was the case with Justine Sacco. So what do we do? In the absence of perfection, we need to develop effective filters. These will take those thoughts and prevent us from letting them out into the world. This is especially true when dealing with our social media presence, whether professionally or personally. In this respect, those two aspects of our lives are permanently intertwined.

Become a Better YOU

Since social media effectively blends our professional and personal profiles, the first step in staying ahead of the game is vigilance towards becoming a better you. There’s an excellent WikiHow article that lists 10 steps to help you do just that. We need more, however.

The trick with social media is we sometimes think of it as a private exchange between friends or just an opportunity to vent our feelings, share our opinions, and express random thoughts. If you learn anything from Justine Sacco, take away the lesson that nothing is really private, and you have no idea how relevant a statement may become. With that in mind, here are some general things to consider before clicking “Send”:

  • Consider the material. Is what you’re sending appropriate given who you are and the position(s) you hold? What works for someone else may not work well for you, so give this question serious thought.
  • Consider the setting (venue). What works in a comedy club (or online comedy forum) probably won’t for a corporate executive’s address to the troops via the company blog. It’s important to give thought to where your social media post appears, because context is important.
  • Consider the audience. This one is a little tricky, because as noted above, nothing is private anymore, and even restricted posts sometimes escape into the wild of the online jungle. Therefore, it’s prudent to consider every social post as a public address and tailor them accordingly.

Finally, part of being a better “you” is developing the ability to forgive and put things in perspective. Empathy is another fine quality to develop. While we certainly want to do our utmost to avoid being “Sacco-ed,” it’s also important to realize that the reaction to her actions was swift, vehement…and ultimately a bit heavy-handed. Should she have said what she did? No. Was her dismissal necessary? That’s a little tricky. Certainly, it was expected. Given that Ms. Sacco made questionable statements in the past added weight the likelihood of IAC parting ways with her. However, how many of us have said or done bone-headed things we would like to forget. Perhaps we were in responsible positions when we tripped ourselves up. No doubt we paid the price for our mistake. Our actions have consequences. At the same time, we appreciated when others were understanding and didn’t judge our entire character by one mishap. I’m sure Justine Sacco wants that same opportunity. Her life is irrevocably changed because of a single, ill-advised 64 character tweet. Now it’s time for all of us to move on. Hopefully Ms. Sacco, as well as all of us, learned a lesson from the incident.

Have you ever put your foot in your mouth when using social media? How did things turn out? What lessons did you learn from your experience? Please share your thoughts in the Comments below.

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