Digital Scarlet Letters

scarlett letterI think we can all agree social media is a good thing, when used the right way. I know I have been able to reconnect with lost friends, and as much as facebook makes me crazy, it is the only way I know what is going on with my family most of the time.

Despite all of the good on the internet, there are some downfalls, and pitfalls. The example I give today is about a woman named Justine Sacco. Ms. Sacco was a PR director for a firm that did humanitarian work. One day she tweeted out a “joke”, and then got on an airplane for 11 hours. During that time, her “joke,” which really wasn’t very funny, or even a joke, really, broke the internet (at least for that week), and created a public furor which left her without a job, and a ruined reputation.

To read the full story click HERE.

The author of the article interviewed Ms. Sacco and the man who created the fury surrounding her bad tweet, Sam Biddle. In an ironic twist of events, Sam Biddle had his own fury from something he said online too, and although his reputation did not suffer as much as Ms. Sacco, he still had his walk in the social media hall of shame.

After reading the article, another friend commented that these public shamings, pile-ons and furies were like the Scarlet Letter of our day. Because someone said something stupid, and thoughtless, they were branded for life, they lost their job, and their reputation was ruined.

In the 10+ years I have been active in the LDS online community I have seen the digital scarlet letter branded on people time and time again, and it is disheartening.

A good remedy and a good way to prevent the digital scarlet letter is to remember a few things:

• You don’t have to win the argument. Just walk away when things have reached a dead end. Beating the other person into a digital pulp will not endear you to them, or your cause, and will only foster feelings of ill-will and contention. Make sure that people know you are a nice and decent person online, so that when or if they ever meet you in real life, they will not be surprised at who you really are.

• Do not demonize the other side – and I mean that to people in all corners of the LDS online community. Recently a very mean-spirited parody was written directed toward an online project I am involved in. The author of the parody was brutal. And as I read the comments of this parody, she was merciless with her personal attacks on my group, and us as individuals. I found it kind of funny in the end, because she was assuming things about us that were not true, but presenting these things as truth. I wanted her to say those things to my face and see if she was that bold in person. I’m sure she never stopped to think that if a similar parody had been written about her, or something she was involved in, she would have been upset. In fact, I have seen her upset a few times over various things online. We are all people on the end of that keyboard – would you say things to people in person that you say to them online? If the answer is yes, then go for it. If the answer is no, then stop and don’t do it.

• Remember people can, will, and do say stupid things online. Get over it! We have got to quit being offended at every last blog post, tweet and facebook update. We have got to remember that everyone has a bad day once in a while. Forgive them and move on. People are not racist because they disagree with the President. People are not bigots because they support traditional marriage. People are not apostates because they might struggle with doctrine or have questions and express them. People should not be treated as lepers because they have a different experience in the Church, or have come to their testimonies in a different way. Be nice to each other. I really mean it, be nice.

• The internet is forever. Literally, it is forever. You might tweet something out, and then delete it, but that tweet lives somewhere on a server, or on a screen capture. We need to use good judgment and care when we are posting to social media. Google makes things last forever too. If you post and write things online, people can search for you. Some of them do not have good intentions, as was the case with Justine Sacco and Sam Biddle. There are people out there that troll for the opportunity to create havoc and to bring people down. Don’t let yourself get caught in the cross-hairs.

• Teach your children how to be social media savvy. If you have kids online, make sure you know what they are doing. Make sure they understand the internet is forever, and that the things they post today, may haunt them tomorrow. And for good measure, check their privacy settings on their social media accounts – who is looking in at your kids?

Bednar Social Media Guidelines sm jpgLast summer Elder Bednar spoke at BYU Education Week on social media. I recommend everyone go back and re-read his talk, and evaluate where you are in following his council and advice. He gave four pieces of advice to follow:

1. Be authentic and consistent
“Our messages should be truthful, honest, and accurate. We should not exaggerate, embellish, or pretend to be someone or something we are not. Our content should be trustworthy and constructive. Anonymity on the internet is not a license to be inauthentic.”

2. Edify and Uplift
”Second, we and our messages should seek to edify and uplift rather than to argue, debate, condemn, or belittle. Brothers and sisters, share the gospel with genuine love and concern for others. Be courageous and bold but not overbearing in sustaining and defending our beliefs, and avoid contention. As disciples our purpose should be to use social media channels as a means of projecting the light and truth of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ into a world that increasingly is dark and confused.”

3. Respect Intellectual Property
“We and our messages should respect the property of other people and organizations. This simply means that you should not create your own content using someone else’s art, name, photos, music, video, or other content without permission. When you share messages online, make sure others understand that you are expressing your personal thoughts and feelings.”

4. Be Wise and Vigilant

“Be wise and vigilant in protecting yourself and those you love. We should remember that the Internet never forgets. Anything you communicate through a social media channel indeed will live forever—even if the app or program may promise otherwise. Only say it or post it if you want the entire world to have access to your picture or message for all time.”

I think if we, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, no matter where we fall on the spectrum, follow these guidelines it will go a long way in preventing digital scarlet letters from being branded on ourselves and others.

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About Joyce Anderson

Joyce is a mother, wife, sister, school teacher, Bulgarian speaker, conservative, lover of good music, social media junky and a two time culinary arts Grand Champion bread baker. She and the family reside in a remote mountain community where great discoveries have been made. When not changing the world, she enjoys the occasional bowl of chips and salsa. She can be found at:

20 thoughts on “Digital Scarlet Letters

  1. Yes, I think we all should try to be more judicious with how we use social media. I find that over the last year, and especially since Elder Bednar’s talk, that I *don’t* comment on things more than I comment.

  2. Regarding not demonizing the other side: MWSOR? I have come to truly internalize that what Suzy says of Sally says more of Suzy than of Sally. Great article!

  3. I was hoping for some digital Scarlett photographs. Scarlett Johansson, preferably. Total bummer when I discovered that you meant “scarlet.”

  4. I think that ‘joking’ on the internet offers a wealth of opportunities to be judged either harshly or wrongly or both. As the example of the man who muttered a joke and was overheard and pilloried on the internet demonstrates, we must be circumspect wherever we are. As in the old tale of the gossip who was ordered to gather the feathers from a pillow opened to the wind, we cannot call back and delete what we say. Even though I know this, I have been known to cross the line and leave myself open to reasonable criticism.

  5. This was such a great post Joyce. Great advice. I keep hearing President Uchtdorf’s words ringing in my ears to “Stop it.” Full stop. Just stop it and choose some restraint. The internet has brought out the best and the worst in us, including in the LDS blogging community. I have grown weary of snark, public shaming and people jumping so fast on the offense and assumption bandwagon. I sincerely hope it changes. It’s as easy as not hitting publish on comments or blog posts and walking away. We each need to avoid being an undisciplined writer or commenter.

    And by the way, I absolutely love your solutions. They are timely and practical. This is really good stuff.

  6. My job trains us every year on exactly how dangerous it can be to participate openly on the internet, including images of individuals with nefarious intent physically stalking our families with lethal weapons.

    This is why I almost never accept Facebook or LinkedIn requests from people. Once having accepted Facebook or LinkedIn requests, I then almost never post to those sites.

    Conversely, when I do speak, I use my name. If people don’t like what I say, they can look me up on the internet and correspond with me.

  7. I would summarize the approach as follows: Be the SAME person on-line and in “real life” – AND be certain that person is kind and helpful (i.e., “nice”). If a “joke” you want to tell is something that you wouldn’t want to have “out on the internet associated with your name” then that probably says more about one’s self and one’s attitudes then it does about the nature of the internet. If a given individual finds such things humorous then that person probably should be more worried about their own values and core characteristics then about what others will think of them if it (the “joke”) is splashed across the internet.

    For me (JMO) this is one of the reasons why I use my full name in internet forums, so that I’m reminded that whatever I type will be associate with *me* – not some pseudonym. But that’s a personal preference, I can understand why others may not want to go that route.

  8. To some a pseudonym presents a challenge and they do whatever they can to uncover the identity of the pseudonymous poster, sometimes resulting in false attributions. When I first began to use the internet I used the title of a series of books I wrote as my pseudonym for e-mail and blog addresses but I had begun to use my own name when g-mail started and when I decided to purchase a domain. This resulted in what I consider a fortunate circumstance that I am fully disclosed as soon as someone opens their inbox.

  9. As somebody who has experienced, briefly, an international media firestorm against me – and someone who has also known several friends and colleagues who have suffered serious consequences – I think it important to say that you can be careful and sensible and reasonable in expression – but even so, you are not immune from a firstorm of hatred: nobody is immune.

    Journalists and other people can and will make-up quotes and views and say that you hold them, and these falsehoods will be believed by many – indeed most – people. And people generally prove very unwilling to give up their belief in these false attributions.

    For example, monsterous views were falsely attributed to Orson Scott Card a couple of years ago – and weregenerally believed- this despite the fact Card’s real views are well known and easily available – and he is (of course) about as lucid an explainer of his views as could be imagined. It made almost no difference.

    My point is that your advice on internet behaviour is good – and it may reduce risk- but it does not eliminate risk because that is the kind of world we live in. The modern mass media are – at root and despite countercurrents – on the whole a force for evil, and they do many evil things, and their power is vast. They can and do pick on individual people (some utterly obscure) almost at random, and do their best to destroy their lives – including literally (when people are driven to suicide, or get murdered after media hate campaigns) and innocence is no defence against them.

  10. Ms. Sacco’s story is tragic. But a good cautionary tale. One ill fated word can destroy you. Samuel’s example in the Bible is sorely needed these days: “none of his words fell to the ground.” I’m only lucky my own thoughtless blog comments have not yet come back to haunt me.

  11. Bruce, you are right, you can be careful, but still there can be firestorms and furies, if someone is determined to do that. My whole point is/was to say, here are some ways you can take a strong offence on the internet and be a savvy social media participant. And like any skill, you have to practice being savvy online, best to establish good habits in the calm, so when the storm is brewing you are ready to face it.

  12. I agree that pseudonyms are a terrible thing. Those who use them obviously have something to hide! They should be like me, who never use a pseu…., um, er, never mind.

    BTW, great article. Another thing to consider is “he who is without sin, cast the first stone.” So often, we attack people for their racism, rudeness, or other issue, when we secretly have problems even bigger.

  13. RE: pseundonyms. When grade school kids make fun of kids’ names (Smelly Shelly with the jelly belly) we call them bullies. When someone immediately makes fun of my screen name, I discount their comment. If they can’t come up with a better comment than to attack a name I know they don’t have anything of real value to add to my life. My screen name is simple ” I Dwell In A Tent” in honor of the prophet Lehi. I like the outdoors, go backpacking a lot, and thought it would be a simple nod to how Lehi and his family dwelt in the wilderness before they were led to the Americas. RE: Internet etiquette. When I joined the church some 35 plus years ago while a freshman in college I decided to serve a mission at the end of my second semester. My father thought I had been brain washed, and we sat down at the patio table and he pulled out a tape recorder for a question and answer session. I was offended to a degree, but he said one shouldn’t be afraid to go “on record.” (My father was an attorney, as am I.) I think I weathered the interview okay, and eventually served my mission, came home and married and over the years, hearts were softened. My mother said my father was going to use the tape to have me committed for mental observation, but after listening to me, decided not to. He passed away last fall – I always wondered what he did with the tape, and would love to hear what I said way back in the summer of 1980. I can’t say I’ve always guarded my words and opinions as well as I should have, but I do think about that experience and the admonition to be honest and speak as a witness for Christ.

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