“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
— Abraham Lincoln
Social media gives people power. Anyone with a social media account has immediate influence and authority, whether it’s earned or not. An online presence creates a personal brand in the minds of the masses with every post. It’s a reflection of you, your family, even your employer.
Your personal brand is not just what you tell people it is. It’s what you say and do…and what you post online. Comments to other posts or retweets also apply. Before you hit “send,” “post” or “comment,” ask yourself these questions:
- Is this how I choose to represent myself?
- Is this how I want to be remembered?
- If this goes viral, will I be embarrassed or proud?
- Will this have a positive or negative impact?
- Is this a meaningful comment?
What we write online determines how others view us. The adage goes, “People may forget what you say, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Today, a greater truth is people don’t forget what you’ve posted online—because there’s often a screenshot to prove it.
Jon Ronson’s Ted Talk, “When Online Shaming Goes Too Far,” explains the destruction of Justine Sacco’s personal brand. Sacco, a public relations representative, had 170 twitter followers and enjoyed joking and conversing online. Just before boarding a flight to Africa, she tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDs. Just kidding. I’m white!”
After boarding, she turned off her phone. In the meantime, one of her 170 followers sent the tweet to someone who had 15,000 followers. The tweet spread like wildfire internationally—Sacco became the number one trending topic on Twitter—and a mob mentality took over. Over the next 11 hours, Sacco was vilified; she received insults and threats, some about rape and death. With no access to the internet, she had no opportunity to respond or to correct the thoughtless tweet.
Sacco’s personal brand was devastated that day. What’s worse, she had no ability to repair the damage wagered on her reputation. Branded a villain, Sacco’s life and livelihood were destroyed because of a viral post.
Was Sacco’s post insensitive? Yes. In poor taste? Definitely. Irresponsible? Absolutely.
Yet, this story might be different if the person contacted Sacco instead of retweeting it to an account with 15,000 followers. He or she could have messaged her to say, “I don’t think that came off as funny as you thought it did. I think some people might be offended.” Sacco could have taken down the post. Perhaps, then, she wouldn’t have been the subject of such ridicule, and she’d still have her job.
Like Sacco, war correspondent Nir Rosen’s career and personal brand were ruined when he posted tasteless comments about a colleague. He later acknowledged, “With 480 characters I undid a long career defending the weak and victims of injustice. There is no excuse for what I wrote. At the time, I did not know that the attack against Lara Logan was so severe, or included apparent sexual violence. Even so, any violence against anyone is wrong. I’ve apologized, lost my job, and humiliated myself and my family.”
We need to be able to distinguish between genuine evil and a genuine mistake. We need to take much greater care in the words, posts and comments we deliver to the world. They create the personal brand that lives in the minds of others.
There are no “private” mistakes in this world of social media transparency. The internet can be a weapon of mass destruction, or it can be a force for good. You decide, or others will choose for you.
*Reflections and excerpts from a post by Amelia Alderman.