Social Media Will Ruin Your Whole Life

An in-depth examination of the career-crushing power of social media in the New York Times Magazine last month, “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life,” (, illustrates just how fatal off-hand remarks (or ill-advised photos) on social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Pintrest, Imgur, Yelp, Google+, and so on) can be.

In December 2013, Ms. Sacco, then the corporate communications director at a large internet and media company, while waiting for a flight to South Africa insensitively tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” She then boarded her flight and 11 hours later landed to discover that her tweet had captured the attention of the internet masses: tens of thousands of people on the internet were condemning her racism and privilege and clamoring for her to be fired from her cushy PR job.

Ms. Sacco, of course, not only lost the job that she loved, but was also humiliated and traumatized by the internet’s vitriol.  Following her termination it took a great deal of time for her to find another job and her “15 minutes of fame” made it impossible for her to date, isolating her further.  However, before she was most hated person on the internet, Ms. Sacco was living in relative internet obscurity: she only had 170 Twitter followers.  Her obscurity provided false security: she believed that she could say – or joke about – whatever she wanted because no one was listening. And no one was, except an anonymous tipster, who forwarded Ms. Sacco’s unfortunate tweet to Sam Biddle, the editor of Valleywag, Gawker Media’s popular tech-industry blog.  Mr. Biddle “reported” the tweet on Valleywag under the title, “And Now, a Funny Holiday Joke From IAC’s P.R. Boss” and the rest is internet history.

The most striking thing about Ms. Sacco’s story is Mr. Biddle’s giddy and spiteful comments explaining his motivation in reporting Ms. Sacco’s tweet.  Although he was surprised how rapidly Ms. Sacco’s life imploded, he said,

“The fact that she was a P.R. chief made it delicious,” he wrote. “It’s satisfying to be able to say, ‘O.K., let’s make a racist tweet by a senior IAC employee count this time.’ And it did. I’d do it again.”

Mr. Biddle’s desire to “uncover” racism may have been noble (although it is a bit of a stretch find nobility in his deliberate misunderstanding of a very bad joke for the purpose of humiliating someone) – but one cannot ignore that he believed that Ms. Sacco’s tweet was newsworthy and merited reporting because of what she did for work.  There is a valuable lesson in his malice, particularly for public sector employees (who are often a target and scrutinized for any indication of even accidental wrongdoing).

The risks of participating in social media are high for public servants.  One could reasonably expect that an over-eager internet crusader could target a specific person because of his or her employment as a teacher, fire-fighter, or police officer.  Actually, that’s been happening for a while, remember “Cop Selfies?”.  The now largely dormant blog had its own 15 minutes of glory on the summer of 2013 when it gleefully posted police officer “selfies” in uniform.

No one wants to say it but, delete your social media accounts now, if you haven’t already.  The possibility, however remote, that you might lose your job and join Justine Sacco on her journey from obscurity to literal pariah for saying something stupid, or posting an embarrassing photo, surely outweighs the very minor joy your social media presence brings to you.   If you persist in sharing and over-sharing on the internet, do so with extreme caution and bring your sympathy the next time someone is publically crucified for an ill-advised post or tweet.


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