How One Tweet Changed a Life

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Jul 04, 2015

“We are masters of unsaid words, but slaves of those we let slip out.”
Winston Churchill

Whenever I say that computers amaze me, Evie reminds me how that remark reveals my age. Nevertheless, computers do amaze me.

But even more than computers, the Internet really, really, really amazes me. I still can’t wrap my mind around the reality that I can push the “send” button and moments later a message or a photograph or even an entire file will be anywhere in the world.

And that brings me to the power of social media. In 2005, I joined Facebook and today I have over 5,000 friends. Anything I post there can be seen by any or all of those people and any or all of them can instantly forward that post to any or all of their friends, etc. Some of my posts have reached over 15,000 people. 

Then along came Instagram and Twitter. Founded on October 6, 2010, by Kevin Nystrom and Mike Krieger, Instagram is an online mobile photo sharing, video sharing and social networking service. Used now by over 300 million people in over 25 languages, Instagram videos have a maximum length of 15 seconds.

Founded four years earlier in March 2006 by Jack Dorsey, Noah Glass, Biz Stone and Evan Williams, Twitter is an online social networking tool that enables users to send and read short 140 character messages called "tweets." As of May 2015, Twitter had more than 500 million users. 

But just because a ​tweet is short does not mean it cannot have a powerful impact, as Justine Sacco, the global head of communications for the digital media conglomerate, IAC, discovered. She was taking a trip from New York to South Africa when she sent out a ​tweet during a layover in London’s Heathrow Airport. She checked her phone sporadically since she only had 170 Twitter followers and she was not surprised that no one responded.

She boarded her plane for the 11-hour flight. When the plane landed in Cape Town, she turned on her phone. She immediately saw the text from someone she had not spoken to since high school that said, “I’m so sorry to see what’s happening.” Sacco had no idea what was happening. 

Then she got another text from Hannah, her best friend, “You need to call me right now.” All of a sudden her phone was filled with more texts and alerts. Right then it rang and Hannah said to her, “You’re the number one worldwide trend on Twitter right now.”

Because Sacco’s ​tweet had extremely negative racial overtones, before she even landed there were tens of thousands of angry ​tweets that had been sent in response to what she said she intended to be a joke. Someone even sent a ​tweet asking a local person to take Sacco’s picture when she landed and send a ​tweet for all to see.

A Twitter user did go to the airport, took Sacco’s picture and posted it online, “Yup,” he wrote, “@JustineSacco HAS in fact landed at Cape Town International. She’s decided to wear sunnies as a disguise.” Within hours, she was quickly and summarily fired.

Sacco could not have imagined the vitriolic anger directed at her. Even though she released an apology and cut short her vacation, workers threatened to strike at hotels she had booked if she arrived there. Even her family said that this had scandalized them and this was not what they stood for.

By sharing this story with you I am merely trying to illustrate the power which we each hold at the tips of our fingers every time we hit “send.”

The use of technology can be for good or ill. The same force to build someone up can be used to tear someone down. No wonder Marshall McLuhan called the computer, “The amplifier of human intelligence.”

Let’s use it wisely.

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of  
University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville, Pa. 
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