So now the news of Justine Sacco’s moronic tweet heard round the world is well-documented: The top PR person for InterActive Corp. (but otherwise unknown) Sacco stupidly tweets an offensive update (now deleted):
“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!
—Justine Sacco (@JustineSacco) December 20, 2013”
Her employer, IAC—a New York media company that owns the Daily Beast, Vimeo, CollegeHumor, About.com, Match.com and Ask.com, among others—issues a preemptive statement distancing themselves from her: “This is an outrageous, offensive comment that does not reflect the views and values of IAC,” the company said. “This is a very serious matter and we are taking appropriate action.”
Sacco was on a long, apparently Wi-Fi-free British Airways flight from London to South Africa. And in the 11 hours it took for her to arrive, a kind of Twitter mob formed—mocking her, condemning her, threatening violence, and looting her other social accounts (Facebook and Instagram, later deleted) for evidence of her despicability.
Some brands jumped in on it, too—flexing their clearly undeveloped and puny real-time marketing muscles. I can’t fathom why.
There was something disturbing and creepy about the whole mess.
On Justine’s part, and on the part of the crowd jeering from the sidelines at her colossal idiocy, and waiting for the moment she landed in Cape Town.
But waiting for what, exactly?
Some might argue that people merely wanted to see an apologetic response, an acknowledgment of her wrongdoing. But many seemed to be waiting for something more dramatic than that: A comeuppance of sorts. Some called for Cape Town locals to meet her at the airport. For what? A confrontation?
There’s no question Sacco’s comment was despicable. But the mob behavior was despicable, too.
“There’s a fine line between slamming Sacco for her blatant what-guys-I-was-just-kidding buffoonery, and taking an unconscionable delight in the misfortune of others while playing Big Brother on their lives,” wrote Chris Taylor over at Mashable. “Quite apart from anything else, that sort of attention may play into the worst tendencies of someone who would write that. It grants her notoriety, maybe even a career in news channel punditry. She can pour out an apology to Barbara Walters.”
Ugh. Giving Sacco more air time? Now that would truly be the nightmare before Christmas.
This comes down to the idea that “publishing” is a privilege, as my friend Tom Fishburne often talks about. That’s true whether it’s a newspaper column, a blog post, or a single tweet.
We all have access to a platform. We all have great power to influence, educate, entertain, and help, but also to dupe, trick, anger, and… sometimes… pile on.
I’m not trying to be sanctimonious here – I understand it’s human nature to grab a pitchfork and a club and join the march.
Or is it? Can’t we expect more from an evolved, networked, smarter world? Aren’t we better than that?
The challenge for companies is to treat content publishing as a privilege—to respect your audience and deliver what they want in a way that’s useful, enjoyable, and inspired. But the larger challenge for humans is to treat publishing with a similar respect—understanding the responsibility and power than comes with the ability to communicate with a global audience.
Sometimes that’s a wonderful thing: We saw that last week how Lauren Bishop Vranch used social media to reunite a little girl with her #LionBear she’d accidentally left behind on a London train. But we also glimpsed a dark side when Elan Gale fabricated his antagonizing of a fellow “annoying” airline passenger—which culminated with his telling “her” to “eat my dick.” And disturbingly too many of us feted him like a hero.
As my friend Mack Collier commented then: “We always talk about how brands need to be ‘more human.’ Sometimes we ‘humans’ do too.”
When my children were younger, I used to talk to them about the idea of beside smart and aware of where messages came from; later, they’d hear about it in school as media literacy.
But lately I’ve been wondering whether our networked, global society needs to develop a different kind of literacy—like a publishing literacy—to make us all a little more aware that words have not just power but also a new breadth and depth.
Publishing is a privilege. And our actions—in the case of publishing, our actions are our words—are what matter.
To look is one thing,
To see what you look at is another,
To understand what you see is a third,
To learn from what you understand is still something else:
To act on what you learn is all that matters.