Many of you have probably already read about how a single tweet led to two people getting fired and plenty of backlash across the internet. In a nutshell, the author of the tweet called out two fellow conference-goers for a comment she overheard and felt was sexist. She didn't just share her outrage, though. She shared a photo of the men who made the comment. Ultimately, two people were fired, including the author of the tweet. If you want more background, take a look at this Forbes story on the incident.
This story caught my eye for two reasons.
First, this tweet had significant real-world costs. Two people lost their jobs and a company was targeted by a cyber-attack as a result of the tweet. I hope those involved were able to learn from the experience and move forward with their lives.
Second, it raises a lot of tough questions about how we approach social media. As a company that helps future students (mostly high-school kids) connect in a virtual environment, these are questions that we think about often.
Public vs. Private
It's amazing (and unsettling, at times) to think of the expanded reach every person has access to because of the internet and social media and the increased velocity with which information is spread. And it's all happened so fast that I think everyone is still learning how to navigate these new tools.
As part of this, there's clearly been a blurring of the line between public and private. In this particular case, the author of the tweet overheard a comment made by two people having a "private" conversation. I put "private" in quotes because it was happening at a tech conference where they were surrounded by dozens of people who were likely within earshot. Are we at the point with the spread of smart phones equipped with cameras and easy access to broadcasting tools like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook where conversations in public spaces should always be considered public?
Look, if you're a public figure, making comments on a radio show or on your Twitter account with 100,000 followers, I think you're fair game. But should you be fair game if you're talking to a friend in a cafe? What about a post in a private Class of 2017 Facebook Group? Anyone in that group can copy-and-paste a post and share it?
I know I approach my posts on my personal Facebook profile with the thought that they might be shared publicly at some point, even though I'm typically only sharing them with my friends. There has been more than one instance where I didn't post something as a result. But am I losing out on sharing memories or having virtual conversations with friends because of this caution? Probably.
Now, imagine you're an 18-year-old senior and everyone is sharing every detail of their life on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. What are you likely to be sharing? Are you equipped to appreciate the implications of sharing information and content about yourself? We only need to look at the recent events in Steubenville, Ohio, to realize many are not.
In-Person Conversations vs. Virtual Conversations
While I've had some really interesting and valuable back-and-forth conversations on social media tools like Twitter or Facebook, let's be honest... it's not the same as having an in-person conversation with a friend.
One of the first things to go in a virtual conversation is nuance. Trying to pare an idea down to a 140-character tweet necessitates the removal of words that often soften a stance. I can't use "sometimes" or "in this particular instance" because those are precious characters I'm giving up. In this case, the tweet didn't include the full comment, just references to "big dongles" and jokes about "forking repo's in a sexual way." No real sense for what made this offensive vs. juvenile humor.
On top of that, you often lose the context and history behind a comment. When I'm talking to my friend, we have shared experiences. We know some of each other's background and have an understanding of where the other person is coming from. I also have visual cues to help me glean a better understanding of these comments. If someone retweets something I said in a back-and-forth exchange, there's no context and history there, no visual cues. Was the comment meant sarcastically or in earnest? Was it referencing a previous conversation? Was it some sort of inside joke?
How do we balance our desire to share our ideas and have virtual conversations with the risk that anything we share can be taken out of context, removed from the conversation and evaluated in isolation (think, retweet)? How do we educate high school students who text hundreds of times a day with friends that a comment on YouTube or Facebook may carry additional risks?
Law of Unintended Consequences
One of the saddest parts of this story is that it seemed to snowball into a much bigger deal than I'm guessing anyone involved could ever have imagined. When you release something into social media, it often takes on a life of its own, for better or for worse.
While I believe she shouldn't have shared a photo of the "offenders"—sharing the comment itself probably would have been enough and funneled any resulting outrage toward the comment and not this person whom she did not seem to know—I doubt her goal was to get anyone fired from their jobs. I doubt she ever could have imagined such a strong backlash against herself, let alone the company she works for.
The whole incident almost leaves my head spinning a bit. Should I never share my thoughts and opinions for fear of some unimaginable consequence? Is this just the new reality for participating in the world of social media? Should we all consider ourselves having been Mirandized when it comes to social media "Anything you say, can and will be used against you in the court of social media and in ways you can't even anticipate"?
Again, bringing it back to the typical target audience for most of our partner schools... how do you teach an 18-year-old high school student to appreciate these risks and to answer these difficult questions for themselves?