Justine Sacco and Twitter Self-Awareness

I first saw Justine Sacco’s tweet on Friday morning, pretty early on in the whole debacle, retweeted by someone I follow on Twitter. The screenshot at the top of that NYT article shows that she has over a thousand followers; when I first looked at her account, she had 200-something. I mentioned the tweet to my boyfriend at some point during our usual day-long text conversation, we both issued an “SMH,” and then I didn’t really think about it again until this morning, when I thought to check in on the fallout from Ms. Sacco’s irresponsible missive.

And boy, was there fallout.

I don’t think I have anything particularly unique or insightful to say on this issue, but I can’t help but ponder the story from my own personal perspective, empathizing with this woman who made a stupid, careless mistake and has now essentially ruined her career and, I’m sure, made her own life very unpleasant right now. I can’t claim to know what’s in her heart – perhaps there was racist vitriol behind her comment, and if that’s the case, it’s hard for me to feel sorry for her. But for the purposes of this post I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt; the best case scenario I imagine is that she’s self-absorbed and careless, like many of us privileged twenty- or thirty-somethings are, and she made a really, really dumb, in-poor-taste joke on social media that unfortunately blew up in a way that she never expected could happen.

She and I have a few things in common, I’m finding, after perusing her LinkedIn and pondering her Twitter account. She’s a bit older than me, I think, but she seems to have worked her way up the corporate ladder after getting a liberal arts B.A. at a private university. (Her degree in Philosophy might be even less marketable than mine in English.) But as a PR executive for a large, prominent company, I cannot fathom why she chose to tweet off-color jokes/comments and leave her account public.

I came across a post making the point that social media “invites us to create caricatures.” That is most certainly true. On my personal account, I’ve made a lot of tweets that make me come across as a silly, wine-drinking single lady who gets herself into all sorts of kooky situations. I’m not completely inauthentic, but it’s a highly exaggerated portrait of only one small slice of my real-life persona. But I very intentionally keep my personal Twitter account private. I know that nothing I post is every really private, but I think I’ve at least safeguarded myself against a bad joke I make going quite this viral. I try not to be offensive. I don’t post in detail about my job. And I know that even so, there’s some amount of risk & responsibility inherent in posting on social media.

I’m not sure what Justine Sacco was trying to portray with her Twitter account. She’d made some crude comments before, and I’ve seen it hypothesized in multiple places that she was trying to create a Sarah Silverman-esque persona. Maybe so. Whatever she was trying to do, she did it poorly, and now thousands and thousands of people know her name and face, she’s unemployed, and I’m sure she’s agonizing over what her future’s going to look like. I can’t imagine she’ll ever get another traditional PR job again, unless she changes her name.

Be careful what you tweet.


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