On Friday, a friend of mine posted a screen capture of this Tweet, saying it was “in really, really poor taste”:
While I agree that it was poorly worded, my immediate reaction wasn’t disgust about the post. It was a sense of dread at what would inevitably follow.
“Here we go again,” I thought. “Here come the townsfolk with their pitchforks, torches, and just-beneath-the-surface glee over someone else’s mistake.”
Now, before I go too much further, I’m not promoting that brands be cavalier, lazy, or sloppy in their social media efforts. Certainly, someone should have read the Tweet above and immediately recognized its flaws. But here’s why that didn’t happen: in today’s communication environment, we encourage–even demand–that brands, ESPECIALLY media entities, be hyperactive, posting in real time to satisfy our insatiable need for information, often within the confines of a 140-character maximum. We may say we want brands to take great care in what they post, but what gets rewarded is speed. In this environment, is it any wonder that the occasional mistake gets through? Nevertheless, we hold hastily-written Tweets to the same standard as well-considered, heavily-edited messages.
Now, if we were a little more forgiving, this wouldn’t be worth addressing. However, the indignation that follows a post like the one above is one of the worst aspects of social media. The flip side of something great–a community coming together to solve a problem or turn a right into a wrong–is something awful: the schadenfreude that comes with watching someone else’s shit hit someone else’s fan. This is nothing new, of course; gossip has been around for centuries. The difference today is that instead of talking over the fence or the phone, we have the opportunity to reach dozens of people, right NOW.
What this leads to is comment strings like the one that followed the post mentioned above, where people cloaked themselves in outrage to get attention and conceal what really amounted to a chance to claim superiority. The comments came in a few different forms:
- “LOOK AT ME! I would never say such a thing, which therefore allows me to claim superior judgment/intelligence!”
- “LOOK AT ME! I recognize this as a flawed use of social media and can therefore claim to have superior knowledge of social media!”
- “LOOK AT ME! I loathe such low standards of journalism, which gives me the right to claim the high moral ground as a journalist.”
I call bullshit on all three of these. What separates the commenters from the person who posted on Indiana’s News Center’s behalf isn’t necessarily superiority. It’s more likely that they just don’t have the obligation to post dozens of times a week for an account that is watched by thousands of followers. And god help them if they ever do. As Kevin Mullett aptly stated as this whole thing unfolded, “it is a good policy to be willing to extend grace in expectation of someday needing it.”
Because I’ve been pretty vocal in my position that this was more “in haste” than “poor taste,” some have questioned my motives. One commenter did the inevitable and assumed that Indiana’s News Center’s must be a client of mine. That’s not the case–if I have any relationships in their niche, it’s with their main competitor. The truth is, this really isn’t about one post. It’s more about a burgeoning trend where public incivility is becoming the standard in our communication environment. I see it in the comment strings on YouTube videos and in news stories. I see it in little things, like our penchant for correcting other’s grammatical errors loudly and publicly instead of discreetly and privately (there’s that opportunity to claim superiority again). I see it in half-baked, seemingly insensitive Twitter posts like the one above. And I also see it our “Gotcha!” approach to citizen journalism, where we can’t resist the urge to snap the screen-cap shutter when we see someone stumble and continue to pile on even after the “offender” has apologized and corrected the error.
Here’s the bottom line: Indiana’s News Center’s should see this as a learning opportunity where the message is, “think before you post.” That’s the same lesson, however, ALL of us need to take away from this. Do we really need to take note of every error, regardless of whether the intent was to say something harmful? Or would it serve us well to cut each other a little more slack when we’re asked to communicate at a speed we’re all still getting used to?
Trust me, I’m not saying I’m perfect. This message is as much for me as anyone else. The thing is, though, no one’s perfect, and this is a very different communication environment than the one that preceded it. We’re shaping it as we speak, and we’ll ultimately have to live with it, wherever it lands. With that in mind, be sure not to hold others to an unreasonable standard, unless you want others to take the same approach with you.