Recently I read “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” British journalist Jon Ronson’s book-length examination of public shaming – and those people whose lives were destroyed by said shaming – that came out earlier this year. It’s a fascinating, unsettling read, as Ronson talks to a bevy of crushed souls whose lives and careers were scorched in an instant thanks to a ravenous, judgmental public, hellbent on taking them down for a wrongly worded statement, a social faux pas or something even more trivial.
The most disturbing example of public shaming in the book happened a couple of years ago. Some of you may remember Justine Sacco, the young publicist who made this tweet before she took a holiday trip to Cape Town in 2013: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding, I’m white!”
Sacco, who previously tweeted purposely snarky messages to her followers in the past, hit a nerve with this one. By the time she landed in Cape Town and turned on her phone, Sacco was a No. 1 worldwide trend. She was barraged with angry tweets, many of them from people demanding Sacco be fired for making such an offensive joke.
Ronson interviewed Sacco, who thought for sure no one would take what she said seriously. (“Living in America puts us in a bit of a bubble when it comes to what is going on in the third world,” she later wrote in an email to Ronson. “I was making fun of that bubble.”) Unfortunately, people who didn’t know Sacco or her sense of humor thought she was just another ignorant, over-privileged white chick saying something dumb.
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But, as Ronson later pondered in the book, even if she was, what good came from getting shamed?
“A life had been ruined,” writes Ronson. “What was it for: just some social media drama? I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we get old and stop. But with social media, we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people. What rush was overpowering us at times like this? What were we getting out of it?”
It’s amazing how a throwaway thought you had can virtually ruin your life the minute it hits social media. Public-shaming mobs continue to look for folks to wag their finger at, even bringing up tweets people posted years ago. Less than 24 hours after he was named Jon Stewart’s replacement on “The Daily Show,” South African comedian Trevor Noah got called out for jokes he made several years earlier on Twitter that were deemed sexist and anti-Semitic. (Noah took to Twitter, declaring he has matured as a comic and as a man: “To reduce my views to a handful of jokes that didn’t land is not a true reflection of my character, nor my evolution as a comedian.”)
Bad-joke tweets aren’t the only ones that can come back and bite a big chunk of your behind. Tweets made out of frustration and anger can get you in trouble too. The day before his failed reboot of “Fantastic Four” hit theaters, director Josh Trank went on Twitter declaring that the theatrical cut technically wasn’t his. “A year ago, I had a fantastic version of this,” he tweeted. “And it would’ve received great reviews. You’ll probably never see it. That’s reality though.”
While Trank later deleted this tweet, reports estimated the tweet may have cost the film as much as $10 million at the box office.
All these instances of people saying the wrong thing on Twitter and paying dearly for it has got me thinking about all the dumb things I’ve tweeted over the years. While I think I’ve mastered the art of social-media posting to the point where I know what to say and what not to say on Twitter (I’ve been known to get quite, shall we say, irreverent when inspiration hits my little Twitter fingers), there have still been moments when I’ve had to be reprimanded, by friends or even by a daily newspaper where my byline appears, for going too far on certain tweets.
Sometimes, I wonder if should do what Adele does when it comes to tweeting. During a radio interview in the U.K., the pop megastar said she has a team of people who keep her from putting her foot in her mouth online. “I’m not allowed any passwords to anything because of drunk tweets and all that,” she said.
While denying people their passwords is a bit much, I do think people should bounce potential, life-shattering tweets to close friends before they send them off on the Interwebs. And, for God’s sake, don’t drink and tweet!