Twitter: the Dry Kindling of Internet Firestorms

Many years ago, long before Twitter, we all became aware of the limits of email as a medium of communication. Lacking the depth of non-verbal communication, voice inflection, and body language, it was easy to misunderstand the writer’s intention. Misunderstandings and conflicts could develop that would never have occurred in a face to face conversation or even a phone call.

If you think email has problems…

I learned early in my career that if things seem to be getting heated or confrontational on email, it’s time to pick up the phone and clear things up.

In the days of email discussion lists, Usenet newsgroups, and Live Journal, the term Flame War came into use, generally referring to an online argument which arose as an artifact of this format in which tone could be easily misinterpreted.

Facebook made this phenomenon a bit worse. It encouraged posts of a few sentences instead of a few paragraphs, and comments on those posts were generally even shorter. With less information, misunderstandings increased.

Twitter distilled communication to a form which minimized content and nuance, creating an optimum environment for misunderstanding and conflict.

Twitter and the loss of nuance

I have never been a great fan of Twitter. How could you express any kind of nuanced, meaningful idea in 140 characters? Of course, that is the appeal of Twitter. Most people are not interested in nuance and meaning. They want to make a quick quip and be on to the next thing.

Twitter legitimizes intellectual laziness. When everyone is speaking in 140 characters, then your short, meaningless post is just as deep and meaningful as everyone else’s.

Yes, I know that Twitter has doubled their maximum to 280 characters. The basic principle remains. By comparison, according to Sprout Social, Facebook allows 63,206 characters, Instagram 2,200. Even YouTube allows 5,000 characters.

In a previous article, I emphasized the importance of not debating in comments for anyone who needs to speak from a position of authority. Twitter is like one big comment section. It’s very format almost encourages misunderstanding and strips nuance. Worse, it trains its users to think in short, staccato bursts.

So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson in which he discusses the power of Twitter to ruin lives.
Jon Ronson’s incredibly insightful book.

When I set up this web site, I was suggested by a number of friends to read Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. In it, he discusses a number of examples of individuals for whom a single Tweet or post had gone viral causing them to become pariahs. Often, they  lost jobs, friendships, and prestige due to a simple misunderstanding.

Justine Sacco’s Twitter nightmare

Justine Sacco made a single Tweet that went viral while she was on an international flight. It was one of a series of silly, off color, poorly thought out tweets that she made during her long travels to amuse herself. She was followed by 170 people at the time, and rarely have much if any engagement in her postings.

Justine Sacco Twitter tweet: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"
Not quite as funny out loud as it was in her head.

But this one was picked up, and in the tinderbox of Twitter, all that anyone needed to know was what the 64 characters of her tweet said. Having been trained that every tweet is a fully self contained thought and that every tweet can represent a whole person, the Internet was fully prepared to judge and punish her based on this single entry.

She would subsequently lose her job, many of her friends, and her standing in the community, moving to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for a time. Ultimately, four years later, she was able to fully return to society, getting a new job with IAC, from which she had been fired after her tweet.

Coming back in out of the cold

There are likely two factors in her return, both of which are instructive. The Internet forgets, and nuance finally developed. In his book, Ronson laments the fact that he has been part of many public shamings, and cannot remember the identity of most of his victims. Many of those involved in Sacco’s shaming probably forgot about her as quickly as they hit the send button.

She was also featured in Ronson’s 2015 article, which provided an opportunity for people to understand a larger picture. People were able to see her as the bored, exhausted traveler amusing herself with thoughtless tweets that she was, and not as the ignorant, spoiled, racist, rich brat that they wanted her to be.

Nothing spoils a joke like nuance.

Crisis communications in a Twitter World

One of the key axioms that I recommend to my clients is to communicate from the high ground. Get out of the comment sections. A social media status is better than a comment. An article or blog post is better than a social media status. A book is better than an article. And so on.

Most of those who suffered most gravely at the merciless hands of the Internet did so because they allowed the crowd to control their message, and thus, to define their identity. In such situations, while it is impossible to control the narrative, it is vital to influence it, and the first step of doing so is making the full truth available to the public. Only then is the next step to encourage them to partake of it.

A most common mistake is failing to put your story out there because you believe that nobody wants to hear it. They may not want to hear it, but when they do, and when they discover that their victim is a multidimensional person with a family, friends, hopes, dreams, and foibles, the joy of slaying a monster evaporates.


Is someone else defining your identity to the public? Contact us, and let us help you to make your story your own.

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