A Single Tweet Can Ruin Your Life. Or It Can Ruin The Life Of Someone Else

shame-in-a-room“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

This is a tweet that Justine Sacco sent to her 174 Twitter followers while waiting for boarding in the London airport on 20 Dec 2013.

How does that tweet make you feel?

What would you do if you saw this in your Twitter feed?

Would you just skim through?

Would you laugh at this joke?

Or would you rage at Justine and tweet back at her saying what an awful kind of person you think she is (making sure all of your followers will see that)?

But let’s get back to the original story. No one replied to that tweet and so Justine got on her plane and turned off her phone.

She only tuned it back on when the plain landed in Cape Town.

Only to realise that her life was ruined.

Apparently someone from her 174 followers got so pissed off by this silly joke that (s)he send it to someone else and started a chain reaction.

What Justine saw when she turned on her phone were thousands of people on Twitter raging at her in the most peculiar ways.

And the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet was trending worldwide:

public-shaming-justine-sacco

  • And then her boss called to say she was fired.
  • And then every online publication covered the story.
  • And then her mom said some ugly things to her.

It took a single silly tweet to ruin Justine’s life. All because people on Twitter decided to publicly express their opinion about that tweet.

But the most important part of the story…

WE did it!

I mean people like you and me ruined the life of someone they didn’t even know exist.

And there’s actually a term to describe that.

Public Shaming

(though Wikipedia suggests another term – public humiliation)

I stumbled upon this story in an amazing book by Jon Ronson called “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

so-youve-been-publicly-shamed

Here are a few quotes from that book that explain some psychology behind that public shaming on social media:

‘So what you get is a kind of mutual grooming. One person sends on information that they know others will respond to in accepted ways. And then, in return, those others will like the person who gave them that piece of information. So information becomes a currency through which you buy friends and become accepted into the system. That makes it very difficult for bits of information that challenge the accepted views to get in. They tend to get squeezed out. When someone says something or does something that disturbs the agreed protocols of the system, the other parts react furiously and try to eject that destabilizing fragment and regain stability. And so the idea that there is another world of other people who have other ideas is marginalized in our lives.’
‘Twitter is all about everybody proving things to each other. It’s what sparked the disaster – Justine wandering around Heathrow, killing time before her flight, hoping to be congratulated by her 170 Twitter followers for being funny. And it’s why everything spiralled while she slept. Thousands of people felt compelled to demonstrate to themselves and each other that they cared about people dying of AIDS in Africa. It was the desire to be compassionate that led so many people to commit the profoundly un-compassionate act of tearing apart a woman as she slept on a plane, unable to explain her joke.’
‘By the mere fact that he forms part of an organized crowd a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilization. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd he is a barbarian – that is, a creature acting by instinct . . . In a crowd every sentiment and act is contagious.’

(all of that actually goes back to the “people love tweeting things that will make them look good” concept that I’ve talked about before)

I’m not going to share any other stories and insights from this book, because I really want you to read it yourself from start to finish.

But the two most important things I’ve learned from it are:

  • Your chances of becoming a victim of public shaming are a lot higher than you think.
  • Think twice before you bash someone online. It may feel like you’re doing the right thing, but in reality you might ruin someone’s life (which I’m sure you will regret afterwards).

This book resonated with me a lot.

Probably because I’ve been a victim of public shaming quite a few times in year 2015 alone.

The scale of my shaming was almost non existent compared to Justine’s, but even on a smaller scale it felt terrible.

How I Got Bashed On Reddit

A few months after joining Ahrefs I decided to get my hands dirty talking to customers and random SEOs to get as much feedback about our toolset as I possibly could.

And so I started this thread on Reddit: “I’m Tim Soulo from Ahrefs and I’m looking for some feedback!”

At first it went really well and I was getting awesome insights from very smart people.

But then one particular topic started to prevail – “Ahrefs is too expensive“.

I carefully addressed quite a few of such comments, but as I was getting more of them I couldn’t resist joking about it:

timsoulo-on-reddit

The reason I allowed myself this joke is because I thought that Reddit was a laid back community and I could just relax and be myself there (and should you know I’m the kind of person who loves to joke about anything and everything).

I think I actually made a few other jokes in that thread, but there was nothing super disastrous about them.

And yet the guys from Reddit thought otherwise:

02-timsoulo-on-reddit

I got quite a few comments like this one. And it felt like there was a competition for the most ingenious insult.

But luckily some of the guys took my side:

tim-got-hate

All in all, the conflict didn’t escalate much. Partially because my jokes were really nothing sensational and partially because some people promptly took my side in that conflict (thanks, guys).

But even this tiny act of public shaming felt horrible.

The thought of “screwing up Ahrefs’ reputation” shortly after getting on board was making me cringe, especially after I saw how a similar thing had happened before with one of our competitors.

So that’s the story.

After joining Ahrefs I got exposed to a much larger audience than I’m used to and so it was very easy for me to get in this kind of trouble quite a few times.

I’ve shared the story of my “public shaming” with you for two reasons:

1. Be careful with what you say or do online. And the more eyes are looking at you – the more careful you have to be.

2. Don’t make snap judgements of people based on a single foolish tweet or a single lousy comment. And even if you do – don’t join the mass hysteria of publicly shaming that person. You can always send him(her) a private message if you really need to vent (but people rarely vent in private, because it doesn’t feel as rewarding as public shaming, right?).

And that’s it.

I really want you to read the original book and then share it with at least one person you know. You might almost literally save someone’s life this way.

I'm the guy behind BloggerJet blog. I'm also the guy behind TweetDis and Content Upgrades PRO. But that's like 10% of what I do these days, as the other 90% is devoted to doing marketing for an awesome SEO toolset called Ahrefs.

20 Comments

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  1. Great post, Tim. Those are some pretty harsh comments you got from other Redditors. Although Ahrefs pricing is out of reach for many bloggers, that doesn’t mean they need to call you numbnuts or retarded. Unlike you, Justine Sacco had it coming. Justine’s elitist and racist comment implicitly terrorized other people by suggesting that they could get AIDS because they’re not white like her. Her attempt to be funny was plainly offensive and demonstrated poor judgement. As a result, she paid the price. I don’t feel sorry for her. Who in their right mind considers it a good idea to draft or send Tweets like that?

    • Tim Soulo

      yeah.. but she didn’t intend to let the entire world know about it, did she?

      she had like 100 followers, with most of them being people she knows personally.

      I do allow myself improper jokes when I’m in company of my friends and people who I know well. I’m sure many people say things to their friends that they will never say publicly.

      The problem with Justine is that her tweet got public, because someone with huge following retweeted it.

      I’m sure that every second thousands of “improper” tweets are posted on Twitter. But these people are simply lucky that there’s no one who will expose their tweets in front of large audiences.

      So yeah.. I’m sure that Justine would never joke like that in front of a large audience. But people make a judgement of her based on one silly tweet. I think that’s wrong.

  2. Hi Tim, what about public redemption? Justine Sacco has moved on with her life, and getting things back together again, and you’ve just thrust the spotlight firmly in her face again. And, no, I don’t know her personally, I’ve just read a few “where is she now” articles.
    This article, although meant to be educational, and even shares your own experience too, is actually a form of public shaming. There are plenty of other organisations you could’ve mentioned, I’m curious as to why you chose the lone female to highlight?
    Actually, I’m not. I know why. Her pockets aren’t as deep as a brands. It’s good that you work for a supportive company and that you’re able to move on after your public shamin, perhaps you could allow some of that privilege for Justine?

    • Tim Soulo

      Hey Sarah,

      Was that an attempt to publicly shame me for writing that article? :))

      I picked Justine’s story for my article because she’s the main story of the book that I’ve just read. And I was hoping that her story would make people interested to read the whole book, because there’s plenty of other awesome thoughts and stories there.

      And I’m actually on Justine’s side. Please re-read the article and you’ll notice that I didn’t say anything bad about her. Actually I can relate to her (I shared my own example) and I am 100% empathetic.

      Other than that, my blog is not NYT or Guardian.. not even nearly. So even if I was trying to give Justine another round of shame – that wouldn’t work here on BloggerJet.

      I think you totally misunderstood the message behind the article. And your comment seems like you just wanted to vent at me, which is something I was hoping people would refrain from after reading my article.

  3. Tim, what a great story and example to share. I always think whenever we post anything online – everyone and anyone can see it like your parents, your boss, your neighbors, friends, customers, etc. So be very aware each time you post. Keep it positive!
    Thanks for sharing this one with us Tim, a great reminder for ALL of us.
    PS: I will have to read the book.

    • Tim Soulo

      Hey Lisa,

      Thanks a lot for your comment!

      I strongly encourage you to read the book, because there’s a story that shows that you can get in trouble in social media even for doing something in real life. That’s the scariest of all.

      Please read the book and then come back here and post another comment with your opinion :)

  4. I had this, when some of my authors/friends started doing joke on social media – as it terms it also affect your reputation from your friends and advertisers globally – as they don’t know what is true. some friends backed up me about the insult and few others enjoyed me getting shamed.

    Insulting a person or their brand affects their reputation. Hope you got back up by friends !

  5. public shaming should go man… follow PC principal on southpark… one episode is based on public shaming where butters battles them all… nice article thank you for posting

  6. Tim:

    How do you know for sure that Justine Sacco was
    “joking” with her tweet??

    No lol attached to tweet. You are stating an
    unsupported assumption that this was a joke.
    She could have been deadly serious.

    Your view that somehow she didn’t realize that
    her tweet could go viral is WAY OFF BASE.

    Finally, your link bait headline is a very good one.

    But, her life is hardly ruined. Granted she has
    suffered a severe rebuke, but memories are short,
    and the public has moved on (to the next outrage, lol).

    • nicole

      because she said so. she has family in SA and was mocking/mimicking how so many westerners consider HIV/AIDS an “African thing,” when of course it’s not.

      her friends would know that.

      randos on the internet, such as yourself, would not.

  7. Tim, what an incredible story and case to share. I generally think at whatever point we post anything online – everybody and anybody can see it.

    A debt of gratitude is in order for offering this one to us Tim, an awesome update for Every one of u :)

  8. Hey Tim!
    Nice meeting you here!

    What a great story, you have shared. After reading this story, I am thinking that people can reply positive or negative comment of our word.

    Therefore, we should write very carefully before writing about anything.

    Because people are looking our words from everywhere over internet and we are covered from all the sides through social media.

    Joking in Social media may create a big problem. Therefore, we should be careful..

    one of the best great motivation for me..

    Thanks a lot!
    -Ravi

  9. I use the 2 second rule, if I have to think about posting it for more than 2 seconds, I don’t post.

  10. Hey Tim,

    Really great post and story here.

    That’s a really interesting story that happened to Justine. It goes to show you that Twitter and many other social sites are basically a loaded gun. And if you say the wrong things, even jokingly, it’ll go badly for you.

    That being said, the Reddit thing, I don’t think you deserved that backlash.

    Great overall message.

    – Andrew

    • Tim Soulo

      thanks, Andrew!

  11. Hi! Tim,

    I am a reader of your blog from the last 3 months and today when I just landed on your blog, the headline attracted me.

    Justine’s story was really gained a lot of popularity and I actually love the way you presented it to describe what a single tweet have the potential to do.

    I feel really bad for you after reading such comments you’ve got on reddit. But, still you have to face some haters along with fans.

    I believe that for the quality, you have to pay the price. The power of Ahrefs is much more valuable rather than it’s price. Although I’ve never used Ahref before but I agree that for quality you have to put some money out of your pocket.

    BTW, Awesome post indeed!

    Cheers,
    Umair

  12. Hey Tim,

    Looks like I”m a bit late to the party.
    But awesome post.

    It’s surprising that Justine’s tweet, though super inflammatory, made any waves at all, considering that she only had about 100 followers and the average half-life of a tweet is darn small (24 ish minutes).

    Curious about your experience with reddit… Did you have much interaction on reddit before you posted that thread?

    Why do you think certain redditors reacted so poorly?

  13. Hey Tim,

    Indeed a great lesson for me. Although I take care of the stuff shared on social networks, your experience will remind me in future. Apart from the experience that you shared, I like the way of representation in this post. Thanks for sharing. :)

  14. Hi Tim,

    I disagree with Sarah and don’t think your article is publicly shaming Justine. I had the exact opposite opinion. Your point 2 at the bottom of your article makes your point clear: People should not have judged Justine – a person they didn’t know at all – based on a 144-character length comment on her Twitter feed.

    Robert makes a fair point that we don’t know if Justine was really joking. We could make an ‘educated’ conclusion looking at her history on Twitter. Did she make similar bad jokes without lol?

    I would though be careful in using the expression ‘ruined her life.’ It turned her life upside down for sure. But her life isn’t over. It isn’t damaged beyond repair.

    Thanks for the article.

    Todd

  15. Hi Tim,

    I don’t feel that you did wrong by posting Justine story here. You just want to give us an example that how something racist and inappropriate post on social media can affect your life.
    It teaches us a great lesson that whatever may be your thinking you should consider it before posting it on social media.
    Because everything on social media goes viral within minutes something lame posted will be viral more quickly.
    Many of Famous Celebrities have faced this problem and they had loose a huge fan following in minutes. The silly mistake they do on internet is soon known to the world and they loose credibility and support.
    I Found the book quite interesting and hope to read it in few days.
    Thanks for sharing.

    With regards,
    Saurav

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