MuseForJews

muse: n. a source of inspiration

We are more than our tweets

(cross posted from Solomon Schechter of Metropolitan Chicago’s blog)

We post, we share, and we judge . . .

When I was in 7th grade, the big thing (today we would say “trending”) was to have a slam book. A slam book was a simple device: nothing more than a spiral-bound notebook with a different girl’s name written at the top of each page. As the book was passed around, you just left an anonymous comment beneath a name. Some comments were nice, some were just innocuous and some, of course, were mean. Cloaked in anonymity, we felt that it would be okay to say whatever we wanted with no fear of repercussion.

Of course, a slam book came to its demise when a teacher got hold of it. The posts disappeared into the garbage, existing only in the memory of the children who had seen or written them. And, while memory can be powerful, those comments were destined to fade over time.

Social media today is in many ways an immortal slam book. There are differences: anonymity isn’t always guaranteed and even deleted posts or comments can still be found. The biggest difference, of course, is the unbelievable reach those posts have. The slam book of my junior high years was a real, physical thing that could only be seen by so many people at one time and could only be in one place at a time. Social media posts today can go viral in an instant and reach hundreds or thousands of people in mere seconds.

We know this and we try to teach our children about the need to think before one posts. To use everything that they’ve learned about being a good person and about Jewish values before one hits send. And I think we generally do a good job at this.

What is scarier to me is how easy it is to judge others in the world of viral social media, and how quickly one can be tried and convicted in 140 characters or fewer. How good a job are we doing at teaching our children to think about the human being – with all his or her flaws – behind the tweet?

In 2013, Justine Sacco, then the senior director of corporate communications at the media/Internet company IAC, stupidly tweeted a joke before boarding a flight to South Africa to visit family. There’s no question about it, the tweet was dumb one associating AIDS with non-whites. She shouldn’t have tweeted it. She made a really irresponsible mistake. She also only had around 170 Twitter followers, so the chance of it getting around was slim. Unfortunately, the offending tweet was picked up and shared by someone who had over 15,000 Twitter followers. It got around.

By the time Sacco landed in South Africa she had lost her job with IAC. The tweet had gone viral, and Sacco was publicly tried and found guilty by the Twitter community. This 30-year-old woman’s career had abruptly come to an end while she sat unaware on a flight.

Was that fair? Who are we to judge? And should her rash tweet get her fired?

I really don’t know if she should have lost her job and if her career should suffer because of this error. I do know, however, that she never had a chance to speak for herself or to even face her accusers.

Our own tradition has plenty to say about judging others. We’re taught to “tip the scale” in another’s favor, and see if someone’s misdeeds are outweighed by his or her virtues (Pirkei Avot 1:6). Unfortunately, social media seems to be faster at weighing misdeeds!

Certainly, we teach our children that you shouldn’t post anything that you wouldn’t be proud to tell your grandmother or put on a billboard, since you never know who or how many people might read your words. But the flipside of the lesson is also important, and I think it’s one we may sometimes neglect to acknowledge. There is a person behind and in front of every Facebook post, every Instagram photo, and every tweet. They are people with feelings. They’re people who had a bad day. People who used bad judgment. And they are not just their tweets.

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March 4, 2015 - Posted by | Social Technologies |

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