Twitter and other social media have given millions of people the opportunity to be stupid in public. But one piece of stupidity shouldn’t be a capital offense.
Yet that’s often how things play out. A recent example occurred at Bring Me The News, a Twin Cities news and sponsored content provider. An unidentified staffer mistakenly tweeted a dark joke about an episode in which a tree fell and killed a woman in Eden Prairie. She had meant to tweet from her personal account, but sent it from Bring Me The News’ account.
The organization apologized and the staffer resigned under pressure. But is one bad joke cause for losing one’s livelihood?
People in the news media are regularly exposed to the sordid and tragic aspects of life. Unable to ignore sorrowful events, they often joke about them. The offending tweet was no different from comments I heard hundreds of times during my newspaper days. What’s different is that today, media people are called upon to respond instantly and publicly. The urge to be first has been amplified manifold; there’s little time to think, and there’s no filter between one harried staffer and the audience.
It’s the same in marketing and other areas of communication. A communications professional may be monitoring and responding for clients on a dozen different Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest accounts – as well as operating his or her own personal social-media accounts. It’s very easy to be tweeting for Client A, then send out a tweet for Client B without switching accounts.
Usually such a mistake is innocuous. Occasionally it’s not. But I’d argue that the bar for losing one’s job over a social-media mistake ought to be quite high. People operating under constant deadline pressure, juggling dozens of messages, aren’t going to be perfect. There should be more than one strike in all but the most egregious instances.
I don’t think our society has fully come to grips with the almost complete blurring of the public and private realms that’s taken place in just the last few years. Technology has moved faster than our grasp of it. In the early days of Facebook, for example, there were stories of people losing jobs or internships because a photo of them at a college kegger turned up on Facebook. That’s just absurd.
Throughout human history, there’s been a reasonable line between the public and private spheres. You were allowed to do stupid things in private, and you bore whatever blowback they engendered. Maybe your spouse got mad at you, or neighbors gossiped about your latest escapade. If your actions became public – through an arrest, for example – then more serious social consequences came into play.
But now we’re essentially in public at all times. You may choose not to be on Facebook, but anyone with a cell phone and a Facebook account can put you on display, and you’re powerless to stop them.
I don’t know what the appropriate social-media boundaries are. But if employers are going to require people to walk a constant social-media tightwire, there’s got to be some kind of a net. Just watching them fall and then sending the next person onto the wire isn’t good enough.