Taylor Harriman: Public Shaming As Marketing

Taylor Harriman thought it would be funny to make fun of being a seat hog.
The thoughtless Tweet that started it all.

The Internet doesn’t forget and doesn’t think you’re funny

The Tweet above by Taylor Harriman has been deleted, as has the profile that created it, but the Internet never forgets, and they don’t find her humor particularly funny.

From the structure of the Tweet, I would conclude that this is one of those things where she thought it was funny at the moment and wanted to share. Whether she is actually a selfish person or simply thought that this was funny is impossible to tell from just this Tweet.

The San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit Authority, better known as BART, however, thought that it would be an excellent illustration of what not to do.

Bay Area Rapid Transit takes advantage of the moment.
While the original Tweet was not there, the thread under it copied the original Tweet numerous times.

BART certainly has a challenge in trying to convince people not to use seats to carry their bags. One of BART’s objectives is to have enough capacity to carry all the people who want to get from here to there, especially at peak times. When one person takes up two seats, multiplied by all the people who might do this, you get diminished capacity.

Public Shaming as messaging

The people in charge of messaging at BART must have thought they had an early Christmas gift when Ms. Harriman tagged them in her poorly thought out Tweet.

Abstract concepts such as “don’t hog seats” are difficult to explain to people. On the other hand, “don’t be like that person” is a much easier message to send.

It is quite common for businesses and organizations to jump on the bandwagon once a controversy is up and running. However, it is less common for such an institution to actually start one.

From a messaging standpoint, BART has been very effective. I expect that over the next few days, San Francisco will see a lot less bags in seats, given the momentum that this has achieved.

Standard shaming playbook

There are certainly things that have become de rigueur when an individual transgresses the rules of Twitter propriety.

The individual’s background is plumbed for additional material to justify their monstrosity. 

Taylor Harriman expresses support for Trump
For a liberal audience, such as in San Francisco, her support of Donald Trump combined with her seat comment creates a “pattern.”

Now that the crowd has determined that she is a selfish seat hogger and also a Trump supporter, they can now brand her as a bad person, or even a non person. Trying to get a person fired for a dumb comment about a public transit seat would be way too much.

Getting a non person fired? Well, that seems reasonable.

Asking someone to carry this message to her employer.
Taylor Harriman job is targeted.
Wedgewood is the real estate company she works for.

Fortunately, for Ms. Harriman, this particular outrage appears to be local in scope. Her detractors are not targeting her vulnerabilities, and the controversy is achieving little traction. She could well ride it out until people get bored and move on.

It is, however, a chilling reminder that if you are on social media, any poorly thought out Tweet or post can get you into the crosshairs of the crowd, and the consequences can be catastrophic.

Best response

Under the current circumstances, Ms. Harriman’s reaction of laying low is probably the best course of action. This situation does not appear to be affecting her vulnerabilities, so anything more assertive runs the risk of reigniting the controversy.

Deleting the Tweet may have been a poor choice, because that tends to anger certain denizens of the Internet. There are people who are offended by the deletion of a post for whatever reason. Since everything is archived one way or another, it is difficult to truly delete a post, especially a Tweet. Because it was deleted, it was reposted by others at least half a dozen times.

If the blowback fire back up on its own, there are a few things that she might do. Of course, much of what would determine the best response would have to do with the precise details of the situation: who was fanning the flames, what are they saying, etc. This makes it difficult to give a detailed response plan to a hypothetical situation.

The first question would be whether this tweet is really reflective of her real attitudes or if it was just something that seemed funny at the moment but didn’t really reflect how she felt.

In the latter case, she would need to reframe the tweet as an awkward misstep rather than as a reflection of her true character. This might start with an apology explaining how she was sorry for her statement and emphasizing her belief that one should not be a seek hogging jerk.

On the other hand, if she had sincerely meant the tweet when she posted it, but has learned her lesson since, then that is what she should say. Honesty is always the best strategy. People want to know that she’s learned something. Americans like a story of redemption.

Her change would have to be sincere. If she was just saying what she thought people wanted to hear, it would eventually blow up in her face. No amount of fancy words can cover a corrupt heart. However, if the revelation was sincere, then it’s just a matter of sharing that sincere story. She would have to let people know what she’s learned and how she will change in the future.

After all, the whole point of the attack campaigns and trying to get her fired is to teach her a lesson. If she actually learns a lesson, then it seems excessive to keep punishing her.

On the other hand, if she just remained unrepentantly selfish, then she’d probably deserve whatever she got. Hopefully she’d learn from it.

Have you made a mistake that the Internet won’t let you forget? The Internet never forgets, but we can help you make your story your own again. Contact us.

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.