I’m looking at you, Justine Sacco

Justine-Sacco-sorry
In Ke’Shelle’s terrific blog post last week, How Not To Engage On Twitter, she tells the stories of two companies; one who “gets” twitter, and one who doesn’t. While both are good examples of how companies respond to various situations, positions and comments they make on twitter, at the end of her post she refers to the phenomenon of “calling out” – using to social media to call out a company or brand or a person, for doing something they think is wrong. Ke’Shelle concludes her post with:

This practice of calling one out has tanked many companies and careers (I’m looking at you Justine Sacco) and at some point there needs to be a conversation around social media and this “calling out” phenomenon. But for now, can’t we all agree that lynching has no place in your product assortment or branding strategy?

That’s certainly a very good question to ask, and an important conversation to have. I would agree that lynching, or shaming, or calling out has no place in a brand strategy. It’s important to be critical and to say things in an appropriate manner though, and sometimes twitter as a platform is not the most effective way to communicate the points you want to make. There’s a very good discussion of this topic in Wired article, Why You Should Think Twice Before Shaming Anyone on Social Media, that does a great job at discussing when shaming on social media becomes bullying. It’s worth the read.

What draw my interest at the end of Ke’Shelle’s post was her comment – “I’m looking at you Justine Sacco” – where Sacco’s name was hyperlinked to this New York Times article by Jon Ronson called How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life. It’s a long article, but like the Wired piece, absolutely worth the read. The article tells the story about what happened to Justine Sacco, the senior director of corporate communications at IAC, an international media and Internet company focused on the areas of search, applications, online dating, media and eCommerce, after she tweeted the following as she was about to take a 12 hour flight to South Africa out of Heathrow Airport.

Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 4.34.41 PM

What happened after she posted this tweet was that when she turned her phone back on after the flight, she quickly learned that the internet exploded in rage. And yes, she was fired.

The author of the NY Times article writes: “In the early days of Twitter, I was a keen shamer. When newspaper columnists made racist or homophobic statements, I joined the pile-on. Sometimes I led it.” He continues:

Still, in those early days, the collective fury felt righteous, powerful and effective. It felt as if hierarchies were being dismantled, as if justice were being democratized. As time passed, though, I watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive. I also began to marvel at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment. It almost felt as if shamings were now happening for their own sake, as if they were following a script.

Eventually I started to wonder about the recipients of our shamings, the real humans who were the virtual targets of these campaigns. So for the past two years, I’ve been interviewing individuals like Justine Sacco: everyday people pilloried brutally, most often for posting some poorly considered joke on social media. Whenever possible, I have met them in person, to truly grasp the emotional toll at the other end of our screens. The people I met were mostly unemployed, fired for their transgressions, and they seemed broken somehow — deeply confused and traumatized.

The article goes on to tell the stories of shamers, and a conversation he had with Sacco, when they connected. The article is excellent, and goes deep into the history of public shaming as a form of punishment. Ronson concludes with this:

When I first met her, she was desperate to tell the tens of thousands of people who tore her apart how they had wronged her and to repair what remained of her public persona. But perhaps she had now come to understand that her shaming wasn’t really about her at all. Social media is so perfectly designed to manipulate our desire for approval, and that is what led to her undoing. Her tormentors were instantly congratulated as they took Sacco down, bit by bit, and so they continued to do so. Their motivation was much the same as Sacco’s own — a bid for the attention of strangers — as she milled about Heathrow, hoping to amuse people she couldn’t see.

What we learn from social media about others is, indeed, a reflection of what we learn about ourselves, and what we do ourselves. It speaks to the heart of the idea of social currency, about what motivates human behaviour.

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One Response to I’m looking at you, Justine Sacco

  1. Seth Rochlin says:

    This is something we face everyday in our jobs and I would love to devote some class time to establishing these policies, how to use campaigns effectively when these policies are placed on you etc … a great article!

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