Twitter: The public square of the 21st century will get you fired

Summary:There are grave consequences for behaving badly on social networks. Becoming unemployable may be the least of them.

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This week, I wrote an article about how the handling of personal data in private industry , not the widespread surveillance programs of the NSA, is a far more pressing threat to infringing the privacy of the average citizen.

If you haven't managed to read the entire post, here's the crux of the entire thing:

I am concerned about how our online presence and day-to-day interaction on social networks could potentially influence our ability to be insured, to secure loans, et cetera, due to potential monitoring by the corporations we do business with and are responsible for life-changing decisions that are not under our direct control.

We should also expect and be fully aware of the fact that the social networks we participate on are monitored by employers. I personally know not to harass people nor represent myself or my employer in such a fashion that would have a negative impact on my employer, and thus could result in my termination.

Constant vigilance is going to have to be required in terms of always having to keep up our appearances and be on our best behavior. Big Brother isn't the government. It's your human resources department.

I have always been of the opinion that when it comes to using social networks or participating online in any fashion, there is one simple rule: Don't be stupid.

One would think that this is a very common-sensical thing, one as universally understood as the Ten Commandments, or even as fundamental as the actual Golden Rule itself, but perhaps we should have it etched in stone just so nobody forgets it.

Oh, wait. We don't chisel stuff into stone anymore, but we do have hashtags. Like #HasJustineLandedYet.

There are probably a zillion more thought pieces that go far more into the gory details of the story of what transpired on Friday, if you are actually interested, but basically, it happened like this:

Justine Sacco, a woman with only a few hundred Twitter followers, was employed as the head of Global Public Relations at IAC, a large internet content property holding company.

She decided before boarding a flight from London to South Africa to flippantly tweet something incredibly callous and racist that she almost certainly felt would have no personal consequences for her.

The tweet, which stayed up for the balance of the day because Sacco was out of communication on an aircraft, was soon noticed by a follower and then sent on a slow-news Friday before Christmas week to an editor of the online publication Valleywag.

It quickly spun out of control and spawned a day-long angry mob effect on Twitter that attracted gobs of negative attention for her employer, which then distanced itself from Sacco's statements as it went into crisis control.

When Sacco finally landed in Johannesburg, she found out that not only had her employment been terminated by IAC, but people were also waiting for her so they could record her reactions.

She promptly deleted her Twitter account, as well as her Facebook page. But the damage had been done.

Deserved or not, the embarrassment for this young woman has been devastating.

Justine Sacco has learned a horrible and painful lesson. One that she probably wouldn't have had to if she had understood one key thing, which is that on Twitter, there is no such thing as "not being noticed".

Even if you only have a few friends or followers, it is likely that a flippant politically incorrect joke or statement will get amplified.

Constant vigilance is going to have to be required in terms of always having to keep up our appearances and be on our best behavior. Big Brother isn't the government. It's your human resources department.

Ms Sacco probably had a much higher chance than the average person of being noticed, simply because she had a high-profile job in public relations.

The stupidity amplification factor here had perfect storm potential.

I'm not suggesting that all of us harbor racist thoughts, but every single one of us has the potential to be a Justine Sacco if we aren't careful.

The very same politically incorrect stuff that we say to friends and others in close company without any thoughts of consequences attached to them can unravel our lives if we utter the same things in a social media setting.

And yes, we all are guilty of saying politically incorrect things to people in close company, myself included. We're human beings. Some of us drink alcohol, our judgment can become impaired, and we often get too comfortable with our surroundings.

Twitter and services like it are powerful tools for companies and individuals to promote their brand, but at the same time, it's also a very powerful tool to throw your brand in the toilet if you say something stupid.

Here's the litmus test of whether you should say something on Twitter: If you aren't comfortable screaming it out at the top of your lungs in the middle of a crowded public square, or at the very least, saying it during a toast during the middle of a holiday cocktail party at the office, when every single member of upper management and all your co-workers are staring right at you, then don't tweet it.

Your employers are watching your tweets. Your future and potential employers are going through your old tweets. Members of your family and extended social groups are also watching your tweets.

Everyone is watching your tweets. Got it? Good.

Losing your job as a result of saying something on Twitter is awful. It's quite another thing becoming permanently unemployable in your field because you've now got a stigma attached to you. Sacco's tweet was read by millions of people.

Additionally, as in Sacco's case, you may end up with a semi-permanent record of your transgressions that is now stored on search engines if it really gets amplified, as well as the huge embarrassment to your family and being shunned from real-life social groups for saying dumb and flippant stuff.

I should also probably remind you that your employer is almost certainly watching your Facebook posts, as well as your Google+ stuff and your Instagrams and whatever else you have, depending on your visibility to customers, partners, et cetera.

With these services, you have the ability (to some extent) to keep status updates within groups of your choosing, but the risk is still there.

So you should be locking down profiles as much as you can, and if you have any doubts about a status update and how it could potentially end up getting copied outside of the circles it is intended for, and then leaked where you don't want it to leak, then don't post it in the first place.

Happy holidays, everyone. And don't be stupid.

Topics: Social Enterprise, After Hours

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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