The internet is a mountain, and if you climb that mountain, waiting for you at the top will be the person with whom you need to make peace. I climbed my mountain and a woman named Justine Sacco was there.
One year ago today, Justine Sacco was the global head of communications for the digital media conglomerate IAC. Getting on a plane for a trip to South Africa, to visit family, she published a tweet: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm White!"
At the time, I was editing Valleywag, Gawker's tech-industry blog. As soon as I saw the tweet, I posted it. I barely needed to write anything to go with it: This woman's job was carefully managing the words of a large tech-media conglomerate, and she'd worded something terribly.
It was a natural post. Twitter disasters are the quickest source of outrage, and outrage is traffic. I didn't think about whether or not I might be ruining Sacco's life. The tweet was a bad tweet, and seeing it would make people feel good and angry—a simple social and emotional transaction that had happened before and would happen again and again. The minimal post set off a 48-hour paroxysm of fury, an eruption of internet vindictiveness.
Sacco was in the air, unable to realize what she'd done or apologize it, and as the tweet garnered retweets and faves and the first drafts of think pieces, eager observers tracked her flight across the Atlantic. A hashtag trended: #HasJustineLandedYet. Several hours later she emerged into an unfathomable modern multimedia hell-nightmare and was quickly and summarily fired.
Nearly as quickly, the righteous Twitter mob moved on. There were other social media morons and marketing employees to hold accountable: Trayvon Martin blackface costumes (338,000 page views), ill-conceived brand tweets, the Auschwitz selfie teen (179,000 page views), racist radio hosts (291,000 page views), and so on.
Some of them were pernicious, some were stupid. Each time, each slap, was the same: If we could only put one more wrongheaded head on a pike, humiliate one more bigoted sorority girl or ignorant Floridian, we could heal this world. Each, next outrage post was the one that would make a difference.
Sacco-related hashtags went dark; blog posts were pushed down the page. The "Justine Sacco" of headlines and links faded into a blur with those racist 12 Years a Slave posters. Remember those? Of course not—and I didn't think much about Justine Sacco after that, either.
Six months later, I got an email. The subject was "Justine Sacco here." I almost had a stroke. Yes, there was a period after "here." Justine Sacco, here. Where? Right here—fuck. There was a ghost speaking directly into my Gmail inbox.
Was Justine Sacco typing to me from the grave? Was she typing from the bottom of a sewage pit? Had she lost everything? I realized suddenly that I felt very guilty about having—I assumed—destroyed another person on what was basically a professional whim. It had only taken half a year to kick in!
She was asking me if I'd be willing to meet for drinks. Putting aside worries of a murder-suicide, I said OK.
Not long after, the two of us shared dinner and margaritas, and I looked up at a face I'd only ever seen on a screen, tweeted and repeated by people who hated that face. I've never been star-struck, but my stomach knotted. Justine Sacco had a face that wasn't made up of pixels.
And, as it turned out, Justine Sacco is not a racist monster. She is a kind and canny woman who threw back cocktails, ate delicately, and spoke expertly about software. She was friendly, very funny, instantly relatable, and very plainly not a cruel sicko. We talked about college, jobs, home, family, and work—she'd recently landed on her feet as the communications boss for a small New York startup, and seemed to be happily rebuilding her career.
I was severely nervous throughout. It was like a first date, only it's not a date and also the person has a really good reason to hate you, and has had half a year to stew over that reason. For about an hour, we talked about anything else; we gossiped about our respective industries, her treatment in the press, and cheery career goals.
Maybe it was the third drink, or months of piling, compressed guilt, but midway through our meal I had to say sorry. An apology to Justine Sacco had been itching at my throat from the moment I saw her. I was afraid to say it—because who knows what else I should be sorry for?—but the itching was worse.
So I did it: I said I was sorry posting her tweet had teleported her into a world of media scrutiny and misery. I'd tried not admitting even to myself that I was sorry, toying with various exculpatory principles like a child's wooden blocks: posting her tweet had been media criticism, industry watchdoggery, social justice, karma.
I'd managed to half-convince myself what I'd done was right, but then I saw her face. How often do you get to say you're sorry to someone you ruined on the internet? I was in a daze.
"I was so naive," she said. She had never expected the tweet would be interpreted the way it was.
To her, the entire thing had been plain:
She was flying to South Africa, where she has family.
This trip, she explained, made her think about how so many westerners consider HIV/AIDS an "African thing," when of course there is a domestic AIDS epidemic.
Her tweet was supposed to mimic—and mock—what an actual racist, ignorant person would say.
Ergo, tweeting that thought would be an ironic statement, a joke, the opposite of what it seemed to say. Not knowing anything about her, I had taken its cluelessness at face value, and hundreds of thousands of people had done the same—instantly hating her because it's easy and thrilling to hate a stranger online.
Sacco was not depressed, or even slightly bitter, and said she bore no resentment towards me at all. She'd only wanted to meet up, she explained, because I owed it to her. I should get to know her before ever writing about her again. There was no catch, no setup, no tricks—she just wanted me to consider her a person, and not a meme.
How could someone who tweeted something so stupid be so emotionally perfected? How could she not hate me? She was serene, decent, and despite the continued existence of Twitter, hopeful: "Someday you'll Google me and my LinkedIn will be the first thing that pops up." That part was heartbreaking.
Justine and I stayed in touch, mostly through email and IM, and I consider her a friend. I never thought I'd write (or think much) about her again.
And then, this past October, while sitting distracted and tired at my desk, riffing on the twisted online movement against "social justice warriors" in video games, I wrote a tweet of my own: "Ultimately #GamerGate is reaffirming what we've known to be true for decades: nerds should be constantly shamed and degraded into submission."
Impulsively, and sort of laughing to myself, I added another, saying that we should "Bring Back Bullying" to counter this rising tide of web militancy. It was insincere and over in an instant, to me at least.
But within a few hours, thanks in part to my similarly trigger-happy and trolly editor Max Read, I watched a whirlpool of spleen and choler swelling till it had sucked in most of my energy and attention, along with that of many of my coworkers. Hundreds of people tweeted or emailed me or my editors; blogs and minor internet personalities sprang into action to challenge me. Their demands started with my firing and escalated from there.
Many of these people were disingenuously seizing on my tweet to direct a right-wing campaign against my employers. But it seemed clear that some portion of the outraged mass I was now facing genuinely believed that I was advocating for middle school-style bullying.
How could anyone have misread my irony? It made no sense. The question How could anyone think I was seriously condoning bullying? was exactly as clear in my mind as How could anyone think I was seriously making light of AIDS in Africa? had been in Sacco's.
Structurally, we had made the same sort of joke: Here is what a truly horrible person—a person whose attitudes were entirely opposite from mine and those of the people who know me—would say. You could argue that hers was worse, conjuring a real and pernicious attitude that had resulted in systemic historical oppression and mass death. But the impulse was the same, and so were the reactions.
The internet became unbearable, unreadable for me, a constant ringing and roaring in my ear. There was no point in defending myself; any attempt at explaining my joke would cause those who were gleefully offended by it to redouble their efforts. GamerGate had turned itself into something more despicable and retrograde than I'd ever intended to point out with my little joke, but there was no one who wanted to listen to that. There wasn't any conversation to be had, no objective to reach or conclusion to draw. Smashing a pinata isn't just for the candy—it feels great to swing your arms and feel a thud, and so they'd clobber me no matter what, even when it was clear there wasn't much sport left in it for GamerGate, either.
Twitter is a fast machine that almost begs for misunderstanding and misconstrual—deliberate misreading is its lubricant. The same flatness of affect that can make it such a weird and funny place also makes it a tricky and dangerous one. Jokes are complicated, context is hard. Rage is easy.
That's been a boon for social media platforms and digital publishers, as any blogger will tell you.
But in 2014 context means basically nil, anyway. Every time I say something online, there's a significant chance it will either be interpreted by committee on Twitter, or stumbled over by post-lobotomy brand managers. If, instead of making a facetious statement about bullying, I'd said "Gamergate is a group of shit people," they would've claimed I was making light of feces-borne illness fatalities. Does Adobe stand against dysentery?
I've been asked many times if I would post Sacco's tweet all over again, and I still don't know how to answer. Would I post the tweet again? Sure. Would I post the tweet knowing it's going to cause an incredibly disproportionate personal disaster for Justine Sacco? No. Would I post the tweet knowing it could happen? Now we're in dicey territory, and I'm thinking of ghosts: If you had a face-to-face sit-down with all of the people you've posted about, how many of THOSE would you do again? We're wading through swamps and thorns, here.
Justine Sacco has a PR job she enjoys now, but she deserves the best and biggest PR job, whatever that may be. Give it all to her. In the depths of the Gamergate blues, Sacco IMed me to ask how it was all going, and offered one piece of advice: "Just don't engage." Without any discussion, she knew the only divine truth of the internet: Do nothing. Never tweet. Never apologize. Never say anything at all. Be an inert bundle of molecules and let the world tear itself apart around you.
This is the one thing no one in public relations—pretty much a sham industry anyway, sure—has figured out, or is smart enough to put into practice. When you fuck up on the internet, do nothing. Say nothing. Remain motionless as best you can, no matter how much you want to explain, or argue, or contextualize. Shut up! Just shut up. It's what someone would have said to Sean Parker if he weren't so alienated in a big tumor of tech money.
Anyone working on any endeavor needs someone smart enough to tell them to just shut up, which is why Justine Sacco is the most qualified person in her entire field. She has the expertise of ten lifetimes when it comes to dealing with bad press. She survived a genuine personal crisis. She's unkillable, and smart, and she will tell you to shut up, idiot, it can't get any worse.
Image by Jim Cooke