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Putting the jerk in knee-jerk

Hey there, Tech Savvy fans! This week I wanted to talk about something that is becoming more and more prevalent in our tech society — the social media faux pas. Also known as a gaffe or a fail, this kind of whoopsie has increased in frequency as you hear about companies who have put their proverbial foot in their mouth as they insult minorities, ethnic groups and social or political groups. Inevitably the company releases an official statement saying that the previous, egregious, missive was typed by some lowly intern that did not really represent the company’s core values and they apologize for any hurt feelings. There, everything is better and we can all go back to playing nicely in the sand, right?

Well, if you’ve followed any kind of backlash story lately you will see that is not what happens and offended and/or disgruntled members of the public take to the technosphere on social media hashtagging the offending company into oblivion. The company, backed into a politically correct corner, issues multitudes of apologies (and sometimes free giveaways) and eventually enough sore feelings are assuaged or enough time passes and the incident is forgotten. Or someone else with a bigger foot finds their mouth.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some pretty heinous comments made by some of these companies and they should know better. What I find interesting in all of this is that if you read some of the backlash it’s not always the company that is the worst offender. Angry members of Joe Public sometimes leave comments or post prose that would make sailors blush and would call up the granny reserves with bars of soap for their mouths. They will often use language which is just as spiteful and mean as the original post but because they are “correcting” the offending company or celebrity, they have a right to do that. Frankly, I find it a little appalling.

There are a number of reasons why this type of behavior is detrimental to the person posting it and in the interest of Internet etiquette and online safety, here are some of my top reasons.

First, simply because it’s offensive. I used to joke in presentations I gave that if you wouldn’t say it to your grandmother, you should seriously consider whether putting it online is a good idea. The Internet, with it’s anonymous usernames and spite at a distance, gives people techno-courage — the ability to be a million times more rude when no ones knows who they really are or can’t hold them accountable. Everyone needs to vent and get things off their chest. I get it. But, believe me, ranting and raging against complete strangers is never a good way to do it. The idea of civilization is that we act civilized and if the others can’t be civilized it doesn’t automatically give us the right to degenerate to that level as well. This is dangerous to you as an online user because it conditions you rant first and think later.

Another reason is because people know it’s you. Sure you can create an anonymous profile but more and more people are taking to Facebook and Twitter, which identifies them for the whole world to know and to launch into multi post tirades about anti this and anti that and anyone who disagrees is certainly a brain-dead ignoramus. Why is this bad? For starters, this is what is perceived then as your true colors. At best you seem like you might have anger issues, worst case scenario someone calls in for backup to get you help. Here’s the other kicker — even if everyone you are friends with or follows you agrees with what you are saying a potential employer might not. More and more employers are turning to social media to get initial impressions about potential employees and for those of you that list a social media account on a resume make sure you’re portraying how you want to be seen. I get it, it’s your personal space and it’s your private life so we should butt out but, in reality, this isn’t much different than calling a reference. Prospective employees meet your number one reference — Google Search.

I’ll admit, I’m no angel and if you look at some of my posts from throughout the years I’m sure there are some things that weren’t terribly well thought out, or were profane or things I wouldn’t want my kids to hear today. But in a world where social media reigns, individuals need to be aware of what is being said about them — by themselves.

Another analogy would be the comparison that no matter what you do you are a representative of your company, therefore you should purport yourself appropriately at all times to ensure that your company’s name isn’t dragged through the mud by your actions or words. By that same token, your social media is a representative of you, so you should not let it drag your name through the mud.

Finally, nobody ever became happier by being angry all the time. IMHO it’s a complete waste of time to expend energy merely ranting and raving. True, there are principles that we should stand up for and exercise our right to free speech, but it is much more effective to do a little research, make valid points as it pertains to the subject and then back up your sources. And please, don’t use “the Internet” as your source, or Wikipedia for that matter. Find something credible that was reported from actual research and compiled in a way that makes sense. A good example would be a news site — from a newspaper or other media outlet, but please don’t assume that everything you’ve read on Facebook or Wikipedia is correct. Wikipedia, while a good portion of their information is accurate, is user edited and can contain false information and you can’t always determine which is which. The danger here, obviously, is that it turns people off from how you say things and usually what you say as well, and ruins your credibility. If you continually rant and rave and your source of information isn’t ever correct you turn yourself into Chicken Little, with a loud voice.

It sounds like the deck is stacked against us and you’re right, the odds are that eventually you are going to say something you regret. Go figure. No one is perfect, we all make mistakes and perhaps the final lesson to be learned from all of this is that in many instances the severity of the offense is not dictated by the original post, it’s determined by how the original poster reacts. There are four options you have when you commit a social foul and each has its place.

The “meet-the-challenge-head-on” approach is probably the best. In this case, the original poster (OP) rechecks facts and if they are in the wrong gracefully and sincerely, apologizes and asks for forgiveness and understanding. This can be done without appearing to be grovelling and often does not require any reparations made to anyone offended. This usually also has the shortest lashback period. Of course, if the OP has made a valid point this approach is also the least confrontational when making a tactful rebuttal to any opposition.

The “I-don’t-care-what-you-think” approach is usually the worst. You get this most often from celebrities or hard line political parties (on both sides I might add) who exercise their right to free speech and don’t concern themselves with the feedback they get. In the case of the political issues it can be admirable, and even appreciated, by their constituents to have such a stance but it often slams the door in the face of civil discourse and the possibility of having a true dialogued debate on any issues. In the case of celebrities, depending on their oops, at best they may seem immature, at worst they may appear completely warped.

The “I’ll-just-ignore-this-until-it-goes-away” approach is almost as bad, the only silver lining is they just remain silent on the issue rather than continuing to dig themselves into a hole. The downside is they are actively giving up any chance they might have had to rectify the situation.

Then there is also the “I-don’t-know-why-I’m-apologizing-but-i-will” approach, where the offending party automatically issues a canned apology and, if applicable, a minor token gift or attempt at a fix. This is usually ineffective and can often make the situation worse. It’s a combination of knowing that an apology is needed but you don’t know or care why you just don’t want everyone mad. There is no attempt at correcting the situation and the hope is that the token gift will appease the angry mob. Usually this has the opposite effect and it amazes me how this continually happens even after people see the results.

The bottom line is that you need to be careful about not only what you say but how you say it. In an age where everything can be seen by almost anyone, it can be risky to make flippant remarks that in a non-social media age might have gone unnoticed. It doesn’t make it right, but with the full transparency social media has, you need to be aware of what your digital image is.