Anyone who has interacted with another human being likely has a few tales of embarrassment. A slip of the tongue, saying something you wish you hadn’t, brain freeze, or simply misunderstanding the conversation, occasionally produces the desire to hop on a plane and head across the country. Embarrassing situations or events captured on social media are there for the world to giggle at and in some cases have led to global notoriety. Posting a webcam video of your latest rant, allowing a friend to snap a photo of you in a compromising position, or accidentally uploading something to Facebook, can have long lasting repercussions.
What used to be private is now in the public sphere. The privacy controls on social networking sites only offer protection to a certain extent. There’s no guarantee that a friend won’t forward a video or photo of you to his or her friends. An over-the-top status update might find its way into a mass e-mail. Every action that is chronicled on the Internet has the potential to reach a massive audience. The worst part? Once something is documented on the Internet, it is essentially irreversible.
Take for instance the racist YouTube rant UCLA student Alexandra Wallace posted in 2011. Her tirade against Asian students received more than 1,000,000 hits. The particularly disturbing three-minute video, that she claimed was an attempt at “humor,” led to death threats, harassment of her family, the release of all of her personal information, and ultimately the decision to withdrawal from school. This is a prime example of the importance of thinking before posting.
In another case, David Merkur, an investment banker, kept a detailed spreadsheet of each woman he dated on the popular site Match.com. This spreadsheet included their profile photos, names, ratings of their appearances, private details, text message records, and more. He shared the file with one of his dates, she passed it on to friends, and it instantly went viral. Not only did the media lambast Merkur, but one of the women listed on the spreadsheet considered legal action as her face and private details were plastered on the Web.
In 2009, a 22-year-old woman was offered a job at Cisco. She immediately tweeted about the opportunity saying that she would take the “fatty paycheck” though she would hate the work. Supposedly, a current employee at the company responded to the Tweet and then shared it with the hiring manager, which possibly resulted in her losing the job. However, the true consequences revealed themselves when the tweet went viral. In a shaky economy, her lack of respect for a job offer enraged others. She was called names, Web sites were created devoted to making fun of her, and her personal information was released in what became known as the “Cisco Fatty” incident.
Embarrassing incidents during face-to-face interactions might only involve a few people and in most cases the consequences eventually fade. In contrast, embarrassing incidents on the Internet have a very real possibility of going viral and coming up in Google searches for the rest of an individual’s life. It’s not only over-posting or thoughtlessly uploading an unflattering photo or video, but the prevalence of smart phones and video cameras means that bad behavior can be documented at any time. It’s become essential that we rely on social skills and continually ask, “Would I share this with my mother/father/boss/child/significant other?” prior to hitting “share.”