A year ago, Justine Sacco sent out a tweet and then boarded a plane. By the time she landed, her career was derailed, her reputation was shredded, and her relative anonymity had been replaced by the worst kind of celebrity.
What was her crime? Sacco tweeted the following: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m White!” The tweet could be viewed as silly, offensive, or even terrible (we later learned that the worst of these possibilities doesn’t mesh with Sacco’s personal views or history when it comes to race — but when the Internet pulls out its pitchforks, what we learn later really isn’t worth a hell of lot.)
Which is just one of the reasons I’m keeping this to myself.
The soon to be infamous tweet was retweeted. It was published. It went viral. Driven by factors ranging from boredom to self-righteousness to the desire/need to get a favorite-worthy remark into the conversation, the crowd used those approximately 50 characters of text to define and, at least for a while, destroy a fellow Internet wanderer. Interestingly, while Sacco was the global head of communications for IAC (at least for the next five minutes), she wasn’t famous. Not even Internet famous. She wasn’t a celebrity who understood the price associated with being well known. Yes, she worked in the business, but as I recall, her follower numbers were in the hundreds. She was a civilian.
But it doesn’t matter who you are. Something as seemingly minor as an errant or offensive tweet can ruin you. And once it ruins you, it keeps ruining you. The Internet is like a high school cafeteria. Except this cafeteria has billions of students. Meme Girls are the new Mean Girls.
That’s why I’d never write this post.
But I suppose fair is fair. Twitter, regardless of your follower numbers, is a public platform. The rules are clear enough. If you want to test out your offensive material, you’re better off doing so privately, like, say, over the phone. Unless you’re Donald Sterling. His secretly recorded and then leaked racist rants with a love interest several decades his junior made their way to TMZ, and within a few weeks, he had been forced to part ways with the NBA team he owned.
I’m still old enough to remember when the people who recorded and leaked private phone calls were considered the villains? So I’m way too old to even consider putting this piece on the Internet.
To be sure, this couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy. Like Archie Bunker in his favorite chair, Donald Sterling’s backwards comments happen to fit snugly into the narrative arc of his public life, and so the storyline was satisfying: A scumbag got what was coming to him. This time.
But what if your worst-ever phone call with a girlfriend, husband or significant other was broadcast for the world to hear? Not a very pretty thought experiment, eh?
So maybe it’s best to save your controversial material for the private confines of a personal email. It’s the killer app. Only it turns out that means it can kill a movie, a few careers, and maybe a company. Some hackers got access to Sony’s corporate emails, and media outlets — big and small — published (and continue to publish) the fruits of that hack. And guess what? Some of those emails make their senders seem like real assholes. (If my emails were made public, society would make me spend the next twenty to life wearing ankle shackles and communicating through three inches of plexiglas.) Aaron Sorkin and others argued that journalists were being unethical in their decision to publish these scandalous email outtakes, which contained nothing particularly newsworthy. But that argument is moot. This kind of data is always going to get published, read, and shared. The future will not be embargoed.
That’s why I’m embargoing this piece forever.
So don’t tweet. It’s not worth the risk. Don’t make phone calls. You’re being recorded. Don’t send emails. Sooner or later, we’ll all be reading them. Don’t take naked selfies, because some freak will find a way into your phone and share your photos in the seediest corners of the Internet. And the rest of us will have to look. Again, it’s not you. It’s us. On one hand, sorry for taking away your privacy, security and dignity. On the other hand, nice tits.
Maybe your tweets are earnest, your emails are nurturing, and your phone calls are the verbal equivalent of wind chimes. But that’s not me.
So I’m not going to publish this post. I’m not going to save it to my computer. I’m not even going to write it. It’s not worth the peril. I know the score. A bad joke on Twitter can get you crushed. A leaked email can ruin your reputation. A secretly recorded conversation can destroy your career.
If it’s digital, it’s public. That should make you scared of losing your privacy. But I’m more concerned about it scaring you away from publishing or sharing your thoughts and opinions at all. But I wouldn’t blame you for holding back. More and more, I find myself holding back too. We all do. Even my cat wants his likeness scrubbed from the interwebs.
I worry that these new realities will lead us down path towards self-censorship. Sharing was fun at first. But now we can see the potential costs. And the risks associated with broadcasting our thoughts just might be enough to turn the era of open digital communication into the age of shut the fuck up.
But you didn’t hear that from me.