OK. That’s it. It’s time this social media “lesson” got a review.
On March 3, former Miss Phoenix Jean-Sun Hannah Ahn was crowned Miss Seattle.
Soon after, KIRO-FM’s website, MyNorthwest.com, reported that back in December, before Ahn had decided to compete for the Seattle crown, she had tweeted, “Ew I seriously [am] hating Seattle right now,” and “Take me back to az!!! Ugh can’t stand cold rainy Seattle and the annoying people.”
KIRO’s Linda Thomas wrote, “She should reconsider the way she uses social media if she wants to be a public figure.”
The story went viral. The Associated Press, the L.A. Times, the Today Show and others picked it up. Haters hated. Clicks soared. Ahn began her tenure in a theater of apology. And as the dust settled, The Seattle Times ran a recap that started like this:
Once again, class: There is no such thing as a private tweet.
As one social-media expert explains, “If what you tweeted would run as a headline, would you be OK with that? If not, don’t use it.”
No. No, no, no, NO.
If you are not a celebrity, a media personality, a tip-toeing brand or anyone otherwise shackled by fame or circumstance to predictable expression, then please, for the love of all we value, ignore this advice. It’s not for you. It can’t be for you.
You are the free people of the social Web. If you filter what you share based on whether it could be a headline somewhere, what is most awesome about social media — their power to help us harness our passions — could degrade into the same mix of fear, caution and artifice that cripples so much of our public discourse.
I’m not saying that venting your frustration at a city or its people is a step on the path to a better society. But feeling free to be ourselves with our own social networks, to say what we think without a blown-up fear of being misunderstood by peering strangers — that just might be.
Social media provided, in my view, the first automated documentation of a human truth — that we are more than what we say or do at any one time. Sometimes I’m happy. Sometimes I’m mad. Sometimes, you can bet, I complain about Seattle’s weather.
I’m mindful of what I say on Twitter, just like, on another level, I’m mindful of what I say out loud. But I’m not going to sum myself up in 140 characters for the convenience of quick judgment. That’s not what the medium is about. It’s by putting the pieces together that you begin to know the real person. We know that — we see that — and that’s awesome.
It’s typical and acceptable for media of all shapes, sizes and pedigrees to treat politicians, celebrities and other prisoners of scrutiny as ticking time bombs, able to blow their own character away with a single phrase.
Want it to be acceptable for them to do that to you?
It doesn’t have to be.
Let me not play innocent here. I’ve earned many a page view as a journalist off the over-judged, overblown but somehow fair-game stumbles of public figures, including public figures who didn’t know they’d been elevated to that status when they said whatever was so buzzworthy. You, meanwhile, have clicked eagerly on that story and the next, because that’s the game and that’s how we play it.
So I understand where everyone who extracts a social media “lesson” out of Ahn’s bad day is coming from. They’re giving good tips to stay safe in a cruel new world, one with more ears in more places than ever before.
But maybe this world isn’t as cruel as the lesson implies. Maybe, instead of expanding the boundaries of scrutiny, we can take a cue from what social media has shown us about ourselves and expand the boundaries of understanding. This new world has more voices in more places than ever before, too. And it’s not enough just to have a voice. We have to use it. We have to keep it sharp.
Increasingly, we’ll need to defend it.
Look at where we’re headed. Facebook’s one-click “Like” button is all over the Web. On Twitter.com, the Twitter retweet has gotten easier, while quoting a tweet to add your own comment has gotten harder. The companies, brands and content creators learning to navigate social channels don’t want you to engage with their posts anywhere near as much as they want you to pass them along. You are copy machines. Steps toward virality. Proof of penetration. Followers. Likers. Stats. If it sounds like a regression to the Nielsen rating days of traditional media, that’s because it is.
Somewhere down the line, social media voices that started out following their own rules began to fit neatly into one or another predictable package. Out of convenience, out of complacency, and yes — out of fear.
Tweet what you’d want in a headline? Nah. Tweet what you have in your heart. The big stuff and the little. The good, the bad, the human. If someone doesn’t understand it, discuss it. If someone attacks it without trying to understand it, call them out on it. It’s their problem. Not yours.