Web Hostess Live: The latest from the Web

Feb 26, 2015

Chat's on at 2.

Hi Everyone. Thanks for stopping by. We'll get started at 2, as usual, but I'm posting a bit early today, because this reading is pretty long, but also pretty interesting. It's a piece about Justine Sacco, whose life was upended after she posted one ill-advised Tweet before boarding a flight to South Africa. The tweet read:

"Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"

You might remember this: the Internet and television blew up with people tearing her to shreds while her flight was still in mid-air; by the time she landed she'd become a pariah, and she was fired from her job the next day.


Before you read the piece, please think about this. The original Tweet -- was it:

A) Racist and inexusable

B) Slightly insensitive

C) A joke that fell flat

D) A commentary that went over the heads of most people.


And then, after you've skimmed the article, how does reading it change (or not change) your perception of the Tweet and the fallout? Here's a writer arguing that Sacco is the wrong poster child to feel sorry for.

We can also talk about Patricia Arquette backlash or anything else you're into today.


I choose A - completely inexcusable. I'm sorry, but...I try to stay open minded when I think someone's humor came out wrong, I really do, because it happens to all of us sometimes. But this? This goes beyond tone-deaf and enters the realm of blithering idiocy. If she wasn't trying to be malicious and hateful, then she's too dumb to be allowed on the internet. She deserved to be fired, period, and I say that as someone who usually strives for more nuance in my opinions. (This opinion, BTW, was reinforced by her other vacation tweets, about the stinky guy and the bad teeth. Her "humor" is mean.) That said, I don't like mobs, and I'm as disgusted by the slavering rabble crowing about her life being ruined as I am about her. Even the idea of participating in one of these bloodbaths makes me feel unclean. (Incidently, the bit in the article about shooting the baboon is absolutely horrifying. I'd be willing to risk feeling unclean for a crack at that guy.)

I'm going to post your "Option A" reaction without adding any of my own thoughts because I'm interested to get a sense of the spread of reactions first. Thanks for this!

And the baboon killer. Ow ow ow on that one.

I'd vote the original tweet was both D) over people's heads and also E) sorta stupid. But I'm not a Twitter fan; I do admire some folks who can craft a really brilliant observation in a few words, but, like the majority of the world's population, I can't. RE: Patricia Arquette, yeah, this is a clear example of a clueless well-meaning person. What a doofus -- she was almost there! so close! and then she exposes her ignorance. Le sigh. SO MUCH WORK NEEDS TO BE DONE. Apologies if this was already covered, but have you discussed Lindy West and her conversation with the troll who attacked her using her recently-deceased father's info? If I had a child (son), I would be so afraid that he would grow up to be like that troll, someone with such a profound lack of empathy.

I believe I mentioned Lindy's piece last week or a few weeks ago.  For those of you who didn't have a change to listen (It's a segment of This American Life), it's really very worth it.

I think her original tweet was a joke AND commentary that fell flat because she put on it on Twitter without any context whatsoever. My brother makes similar jokes ALL the time but because I know him, I know he's not actually a -inserthorribletypeofperson- here. He often makes jokes mocking racists or homophobes or sexists, etc, which would come across EXACTLY the same as Justine's post if my brother randomly threw it on Twitter instead of lobbing it at me in a Facebook chat window. Also, Justine became the poster child because the person who threw her under the bus felt bad, wrote about it, and followed up with her. Calling her the "wrong" poster child is ridiculous, as thought we shouldn't have sympathy for her.

Another one I'm just going to post without comment for now, from the opposite end of the spectrum.

I read the NYTimes piece on Sacco and am fully willing to vote C--bad joke, fell flat. I think that as a PR-professional, she should know better than to even attempt a joke that edgy and perhaps even deserved to lose her job based on a lack of judgment with respect to twitter. That said, I don't think anyone deserves the giddy twitter mob that piles on these situations (I'm reminded of the girl who took a selfie at a concentration camp and the over-the-top abuse she took). Also, Jon Ronson is a helluva writer. His book Psychopath Test is amazing.

Psychopath Test -- I wanted to like it, because it's a topic that is so fascinating. But in chapters, he really seemed to be grasping at straws. The whole section where he decides on his own that a CEO might be a psychopath -- it really made me feel bad for the CEO at the end of the day.

Sorry to distract from the really interesting Sacco/Twitter-mob topic but can you talk a little bit about the net neutrality decision and what's at stake? How could it impact wireless, streaming, etc?

How about instead I direct you to the Post's super helpful FAQ's, which will be much more useful as a primer than anything I might try to madly type out here in a few minutes. 

If only we could find a tweeter named Vanzetti to excoriate, we'd have a real meme here !

It would be total -- wait for it -- anarchy.

I don't use Twitter. And for non-celebrities/non-businesses I really just don't get it. What are these people hoping will happen when they tell the rest of the world it's a crappy morning? But if I did use Twitter, I surely wouldn't post a joke that could be taken as offensive to anybody. I guess that means I wouldn't post any jokes. Or anything at all. People that say dumb things in public -- and Twitter is public -- get what they deserve.

Oh, I could not disagree more. "People that say dumb things in public get what they deserve?"

I would agree with, "People that say dumb things in public deserve to be called out on it." But that's not what's happening anymore. They're not merely called out on it, they're excoriated. The punishment doesn't fit the crime.

More than <slightly> insensitive. A joke that fell flat. She's 30. Grow up. If you're not aware how your cutesy little bid for attention can be mistaken, then you need to learn, pronto. BTW I'm a woman in my early 30s

Another take.

I've never understood why so many people are fired from their jobs after making a mistake on the Internet for all to see. I'm talking about anonymous people in jobs unrelated to anything they said or did. Obviously, someone who is in P.R. should know better than to say something edgy or inappropriate on the Internet, so losing their job afterward is more warranted, as in Sacco's case. However, she, and all the others mentioned in Ronson's article, are still human beings. Where are the employers standing up for their publicly shamed employees and saying, "Yes, this person did something stupid that is unrelated to their work performance. We have had a conversation with them, they are fully contrite and have learned their lesson, and we trust that they can continue doing their job in a sufficient manner." Just because the Internet has made a swift judgment of someone who made a stupid mistake does not mean they should be condemned forever.

I imagine that employers, having witnessed how quickly the mob grew around their employees, just become terrified that the mob will turn just as quickly against them. And they don't want to be caught in the mess that would ensue if they remained affiliated with the original offender.

What is you definition of culture

In an anthropology textbook? Or in the theater and museums sense? Or on the back of a yogurt container?

Mob howling for her blood? No. Way overreacting. Firing? Good. She was a communications director, for heaven's sake, how did she not know how something that crass would come across? Let her go down unto the vile dust from whence she sprung, unwept, unhonored, and unsung, but quit howling for her blood.

So, if she'd written the same tweets but been, say, an accountant for the firm rather than a communications person -- would that have made a difference?

As someone who lost a job because of sarcastic e-mails that did not translate well and FB posts that were taken in ways I did mean at all, I know I should be more sympathetic to Justine's plight. I understand how she meant the tweet, but it doesn't make me feel better about the perceived racist, ignorant vibe. On the other hand, I did not expect sympathy when I was fired and it was Justine's job to handle public comments better.

I'm really fascinated by your perspective on this. Were the sarcastic emails and Facebook posts directly related to your job? Or something you were doing on your own time that your employer still found against company policy? (Is this Rep. Aaron Schock's former communications director?)

I'm torn re: the woman who sicced the internet mob on two tech guys at a conference. That joke was off-color but did it really merit a shame-posting with photo? The backlash might be seen as karmic justice for ruining someone else's career because you took offense to a lame joke whispered between friends.

Full disclosure -- if I had been in that room, I'm pretty sure I would have been the one making the jokes about the dongle. 

Of course. I'd expect the firm to scold the accountant and impress upon her/him what a fool the accountant had made of her/himself, but a PR rep doing this has demonstrated breathtaking incompetence.

So if the accountant messed up on his personal tax filings, then should he also be fired for demonstrating breathtaking incompetence in his field? *Please read that question neutrally; I do not mean for there to be a sarcastic tone there.*

As a person whose daughter signed her up for a Twitter account, I want to know - do people I follow get my tweets? How do you know how many people follow you? Is there a monitor that categorizes and quantifies sentiments based on the hash tag used? For that matter, what is the difference between # and @? I sort of believe I could tweet the most vile sentiments and no one would ever know. I would be shocked if anything I said was picked up and broadcast in the twitter verse to make a sensation.

You need to back away from they keyboard and not Tweet a single thing until you have prepped yourself on the basics of Twitter. We don't have time to drop the chat and go over everything now, but googling something like "Twitter primer" should result in some useful tips. I know you'd be shocked if your tweets were picked up -- but everyone is always shocked when their tweets are picked up, and by that point the genie is out of the bottle.

But anyone posting should know that it's possible for things to blow up. Sure it only happens to a few and who knows why, but it happens and people never seem to learn. So why even post?

I think people do learn. I think people have learned, for example, that they will be in big trouble if they post a selfie in front of Auschwitz. The problem is that people learn piecemeal, and it's hard to figure out general rules. "Don't post anything offensive" is not a good rule, because something that's funny on Tuesday could take on a very different tone by Friday (Just think of any and all Bill Cosby references), and something that's darkly ironic to one group of people will be hideously offensive to another.

I get tired of people saying racist/sexist/truly offensive things and others excusing their behavior as a joke or by saying that they didn't mean it. Just don't say it. Just. Don't.


I find it interesting that she had only 170 followers. It's amazing how fast it spread.

** A warning for the previous poster who was commenting that s/he would be shocked if anything spread.

No, I wouldn't think so. Sacco showed incompetence, an amazing lack of judgment, and a case could be made for her causing her employer harm - she works in PR, she's responsible for the company's image, and she embarrassed them. An accountant - even one who files the business's tax returns - wouldn't have harmed the company or its image, as long as he did a better job at work than he did at home.

What if it came out, in a very public way, that the chief accountant of Big Corporation X could not even figure out how to file his own taxes? It seems that would be rather embarrassing to the company's reputation.

And also B and C.

But not D?

Its funny how everyone seems to project what they want (or don't want) to believe. When I read your multiple choice question, my first thought was "I don't know her, how can I answer that." Of course, I suppose that's only if your waffling between A and D, as I was.

This is where I come down on it. Every single thing about this tweet depends on context. Is she a clueless person? Is she racist? Is she decidedly not racist, but she lacks the grasp on humor that she thinks she has? Does she actually have an extremely advanced sense of humor that operates at a higher level than most of Twitter? This Tweet depends on context, which is the one thing it was not given.

In the wide world, the answer is A, in Sacco's inner world it was probably C (a joke for her friends) & D (her friends understood that it was a joke in poor taste, but no one else did). Sacco may not be exactly right as a poster child for this phenomenon of how quickly people are destroyed online, but she is the most accessible one.

This is also where I'm at. Honestly, if the Tweet had come from a Grand Wizard of the KKK, it would be obviously, painfully racist. If it had come from Sarah Silverman, it would be obviously not a joke at the expense of Africans, but a joke at the expense of white privilege. Sarah Silverman would be mocking the type of person who believed that, and she might also be mocking the fact that AIDS is still a death sentence in parts of Africa, while it's become increasingly treatable in Western cultures. 


I don't think Justine Sacco is Sarah Silverman, but I read it like she was going for more C or D than A or B.

I think the problem is a lack of time to think and reflect before charging forward, both for the poster who just farts out inane and pointless things they think are funny or profound without really considering what they are saying and for the mob that comes after them. It seems like she was Tweeting stupidity all morning and this one crossed a line she didn't event see. And, the mob attached but couldn't control the outcome. Maybe she deserved to get fired in the sense that she brought bad press to the company she works for, a kiss of death in many circumstances. But, then again, maybe the guy who instigated the mob should have suffered some consequence, too. I wish these things had an hour delay to allow you to delete some crazy thing you have now thought better of. That should be a setting.

I'd fully support an hour delay in all electronic communications.

I worked in a place where interpersonal communication was not allowed during work hours. The situation was very tense with our boss actually yelling at people and throwing fits. To top it all off, she kept pushing us under her control - like we could only work from 8-5 this week, but when we got behind, she would beg us to work the weekends. Or she would object to long lunch hours and then issue a warning when people skipped lunch. Anyway, an example is one of these control memos came out, I messaged my friend to watch out "the big thumb is coming down again". That was mean spirited, but we were trying to joke with each other and keep the morale up. Another time, someone messaged me about a co-worker bossing young men around to move her furniture. The co-worker was really angry, so I made a joke to defuse her tension about how she, herself would love to have men to boss around.

FYI for everyone else, this was the OP who had personally been fired for sarcastic emails.

From what you describe of your work environment, it sounds like it was a pot waiting to boil over.

I'd like to choose B.5 because it's neither B nor C. It something that she might say to people who know her and they might take it was a somewhat insensitive joke, but not hold it against her. We all do that, but we shouldn't do that on Twitter and that's what she should have known better than to do.

"So if the accountant messed up on his personal tax filings, then should he also be fired for demonstrating breathtaking incompetence in his field?" Yes, that's how it works in my accounting firm, although it's more of a could. It just depends on how badly they mess up.

They'd probably have to mess up fairly egregiously for it to even become public knowledge, I imagine.

I value my privacy on the internet, so the only social media account I have if Google+. When I think about posting a silly thing, like the latest misspelling of my name by a Barista, I can imagine some hyper-sensitive person excoriating me for making fun of a tired, hard-working, two-jobs to support a family barista and then I decide not to post it. Sometimes the internet isn't worth it.

This is why I can't do the live tweeting thing. By the time I've scrubbed all Tweets to make sure they're grammatically correct and not offensive, the moment has passed and whatever I was going to say is no longer funny.

If she was my employee I'd fire her solely because I wouldn't want anyone that stupid working for me, PR director or junior assistant. "Look at my company! We'll employ ignorant, racist, clueless idiots!" Nope.

I read the article when it was published. At the same time, my husband was working on a freelance project, art for an internal conference launching software for a large internet company. He was asked to design something not so masculine (they also requested "hipster" colors). I took a look at the final design, and asked him whether the robots were sitting. He said sure, and I told him about the article and expressed doubt that artwork that might be interpreted as standing robots with large dongles would be accepted. It was not. (Large internet company paid him for his time and effort.)

We really need to see this artwork, ASAP.

I think C and D. Without knowing the person, it is easy to see how a person could absolutely have meant it, in which case it would have been A all the way. A person would have to be a completely self-absorbed idiot to think that, but sadly, plenty of such idiots exist, so I can see the world interpreted her tweet that way. But I didn't take it that way at all - it seemed over the top to me, like she was making fun of white priviledge, and how many people ignore dangers from which they are far removed, etc. Like a previous poster's brother, my spouse and I often make inappropriate jokes about a lot of things. Domestic violence, for example. It is not a subject I or my spouse take lightly at all. But I know if others might not take it that way, which is why I would never, never post such a thing on social media, or make such a joke in a group setting. So I think it was a dumb thing to do - but racist, no. I leaned towards C and D even before reading the article, and I feel even more confident about that view after reading it.

I understand the opinion that due to her specific job, being fired may have been appropriate. But I still think that's way over the line. The "joke" was in extremely poor taste and demonstrated terrible judgement on the writer's part. But being fired? Overreaction. The "joke" should cost her on her annual review, or she should be demoted. But then again, I'm looking at it from a non PR-position point of view.

Posting this, from a chatter, because I accidentally locked it while trying to answer it:


twitter/going viral

A school in Scotland conducted a little experiment just this week: https://twitter.com/P5BenWyvisPS. See tweet on Feb 20 asking for help. One of the tweets was retweeted over 600 times - and that's not even a super fun or exciting or risque tweet. I follow a lot of people in Latvia, where tweeting is quite popular, yet where the population is pretty small (less than 2 mil in the country itself, plus more emigrees all around the world) -- it's not unusual to see a funny Latvian tweet get retweeted several hundred times in a matter of hours. And there, of course, you are talking about a very limited audience since few people know Latvian!

That experiment reminds me of this one, in which a teacher wanted to show her students how far a "private" Snapchat photo could end up going. 

This chat has inspired me to deactivate my Twitter account, which I rarely used anyway. It's good to know that all of these smug, self-righteous people who are delighted about what happened to Sacco have never, ever, ever said anything at all that could be even remotely construed as offensive. FWIW, I'm getting sick of Facebook, too.

I can't say I blame you.

Here the thing, if a person -- even an accountant -- messes up their taxes, there are clear and well known ways to fix the mistake. If its big and intentional, maybe jail and license suspension or disbarment. If it's less egregious, there's a new filing and a penalty or fine. There is no similar system for the internet, so all punishment is the same, and often incredibly severe.

That's a good way to put it, and an interesting way to look at it. 

I have been really interested in this because I actually just had the same situation with my group of friends from HS. We are for the most part not in close touch anymore except on FB. One of them recently made a very racist comment on FB. Even though we all *knew* he was joking and saying it ironically, several of our friends dropped him anyway. Their view is, saying "KIDDING!" doesn't make his joke ok. I didn't drop him over it, but I certainly understand why my other friends did. I think your window for saying offensive things thinking you are being cute ends at about 17. After that you are old enough to know better, and have the impulse control not to click submit. I do think the Internet mob was a bit much, and I do realize she was kidding, but PR pro or not, by 30 you should really know better. I don't know if she should have been fired, but I'm not particularly upset that she was.

What an interesting situation for your friend circle to be in. In a circumspect way, it reminds me of some criticism we saw about the Oscars in the last week. The nominees this year were very white -- it was the whitest, male-est group of nominees in more than a decade. The producers of the ceremony, apparently aware of this, had host Neil Patrick Harris make a lot of jokes poking fun of the whiteness of the ceremony. Which, in turn, upset a lot of people. Like, "No, you did not fix the problem, you just joked about the problem to make yourself feel better."

is that we should all be thanking you for putting yourself out there each week in this chat with your real time answers and opinions. We're all anonymous and can blather away without consequences but you're an employee on your employer's web site offering thoughts on a myriad of topics. Yet another reason to appreciate these chats.

On second thought, we should probably never chat again.

I'm not sure what I think about the Tweet or what she meant by it, but I definitely don't like the mob mentality that demands she be fired because a PR person 'should know better'. Maybe that's true, but it seems that's becoming an unfair standard... the social media world we live in changes awfully fast, and expecting every single PR professional to be up on how the Internet feels at any given moment is ridiculous. I suspect many of these folks learn much of their job while doing it (there aren't PhDs for PR, are there?). Maybe we should give people a little break sometimes

The chatter who is closing their account has a good point. Does the "average" netizen need to tweet about everything that comes to mind? I think this sort of dumb tweet comes about from trying to find something interesting or funny to post. Maybe the average citizen should use twitter more like an incoming news feed rather than a bulletin board for his/her stream-of-consciousness thoughts.

Except, if the average citizens all close their accounts, than Twitter becomes -- even more than it already is -- an echo chamber of media people saying the same things to each other over and over again.

I feel more sorry for the guy sitting in the audience who made some crude joke to the guy sitting next to him, and got fired because some lady over heard it and took a photo of it and posted a rant on the internet. It's foolish to post a nasty joke on the internet under your own name, but we should still be allowed to whisper something crude to a friend in public without getting fired for it.

When that happens -- when someone is fired for saying something in private that then becomes public -- should we say they have been dongled?

Being fired for making a nasty racist joke in private. He was a good, effective secretary of agriculture, but once word got out, there was a mob howling for his blood in the subdued low-key way that mobs howled for blood before The Internet.

Okay, but Butz's quote -- here, if you want to read about it -- seems very, very Option A to me. Not a case of Earl Butz trying to operate with a high level sense of irony, but a case of him just being racist. 

Not only that, whether Sacco likes it or not, she was in reality representing her employer. At least with any luck she won't make that mistake again, and her case will be an object lesson to others.

We seem to be really, really into making people object lessons these days.

In my somewhat limited experience on Twitter, the key is to finding your niche. Whether it's underwater basket weavers or travel bloggers or Washingtonians who kvetch about Metro, if you find the right sub-group to fit into, Twitter can be an educational, entertaining and interesting experiencing.

Perhaps we should end on this optimistic note, eh?

Thanks for stopping by, and I'll see you next week! GSTQ.

In This Chat
Monica Hesse
Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.

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