Sunday, December 29, 2013

The tweet that roared:
Justine Sacco’s digital object lesson

IF YOU made it a movie, the sudden saga of Justine Sacco would be the stealth disaster movie on a plane, the one where the heroine can’t see what’s coming because the coming calamity is happening all around her, in real time, and she’s in no position to change what she started, accidentally on purpose.

With a thoughtless tweet, Sacco, the now-former senior director of corporate communications of InterActive Corp., the Internet behemoth, learned the hard object lessons of communicating in the digital age. The combination of an instantaneous global platform and no margin for error by its users made Sacco herself an object lesson in How to Talk Today, and how not to.

Before boarding a London flight heading for Johannesburg, South Africa, Sacco assumed the role of an attitude-rich trip diarist when she posted a travel tweet on Dec. 20: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"

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When she landed almost 11 hours later, on a flight with no wi-fi (and therefore no chance to delete what she’s posted) Sacco was the anti-toast of the Internet. In the time it took for her to take her trip, the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet achieved Internet critical mass, achieving top trending status. Her arrival was noted when she landed:

IAC management assumed a damage-control crouch that was dizzyingly swift and uncompromising. On Dec. 20, IAC issued the following statement: “This is an outrageous, offensive comment that does not reflect the views and values of IAC. Unfortunately, the employee in question is unreachable on an international flight, but this is a very serious matter and we are taking appropriate action.”

IAC, the conglomerate run by Barry Diller (chairman and senior executive), includes such top-flight media brands as,, Vimeo,, Tinder, UrbanSpoon, OKCupid and The Daily Beast.

“The offensive comment does not reflect the views and values of IAC. We take this issue very seriously, and we have parted ways with the employee in question," the company said in an e-mail the next day.

"There is no excuse for the hateful statements that have been made and we condemn them unequivocally. We hope, however, that time and action, and the forgiving human spirit, will not result in the wholesale condemnation of an individual who we have otherwise known to be a decent person at core," the statement said.

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SACCO, REALIZING the damage done, quickly deleted her Twitter account, and her Facebook account as well. Then she went into damage-control mode, issuing an apology in the South African newspaper The Star:

“Words cannot express how sorry I am, and how necessary it is for me to apologize to the people of South Africa, who I have offended due to a needless and careless tweet," Sacco said in the statement. "There is an AIDS crisis taking place in this country, that we read about in America, but do not live with or face on a continuous basis. Unfortunately, it is terribly easy to be cavalier about an epidemic that one has never witnessed firsthand.

“For being insensitive to this crisis -- which does not discriminate by race, gender or sexual orientation, but which terrifies us all uniformly -- and to the millions of people living with the virus, I am ashamed.”

But the outrage kept trickling in, day after day. Nsenga Burton, writing in The Huffington Post, holding Sacco to account for gross insensitivity:

“Nearly 15 percent of South Africa's population is HIV positive, that's almost 6 million people. Her tweet demonstrates that she knows very little about the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. Since she clearly doesn't understand, I'll make it plain for her with an example she can understand; imagine that 75 percent of the people living in the city of London were HIV positive. Would that be funny?”

And as it often happens online these days, outrage preceded outrageousness. That opening crack about this being a disaster movie may have some traction. If you’ve got any doubt that the myriad voices in the blogosphere — from the CAPS LOCK cognoscenti to the people who actually know how to write — are out in front of this whole thing, consider the parody film poster already making the rounds, announcing a vote for casting the inevitable major motion picture that’s sure to come.

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Justin Sacco learned the hard way that there’s a new alignment to the media playing field, a new threshold, a very different event horizon than she thought there was when she was the senior director of corporate communications of a serious internet player. In the context of social media commentary, the idea of a signal/noise ratio — the proportion of insightful commentary to that of overcapitalized vitriol —goes out the window in an environment in which too many people think other people’s signals are noise.

It’s a free-for-all. And nobody knows free-for-alls like the folks on Wall Street. Stock in the microblogging phenomenon called Twitter has soared and dipped, just like the blue bird that is the company’s logo. But mostly soared.

But Wall Street clipped the blue bird’s wings on Friday, when shares were downgraded on concerns of overvaluation. Shares closed down Friday at $63.75, down 13 percent, in the biggest one-day decline since Twitter went public in November, at the IPO price of $26.

“The people who rode it up over the past few days all of a sudden got pretty nervous,” said Robert Pavlik, chief market strategist at Banyan Partners, a New York investment adviser, to The Wall Street Journal. “People are always looking for a quick way to make a buck. Twitter was the bet until it wasn't, and it ran out of steam.”

Michael Pagan, commenting over at MarketWatch, was flat-out downbeat: “It looks like the Twitter bubble has burst. As the saying goes, the bull comes up the stairs, the bear jumps out the window... Anyone care to bet on a 50% decline in Twitter's value by next Friday?”

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MANY ANALYSTS have focused on the raw traffic numbers, already impressive year over year. But in some ways they’re missing the overall, the number that really matters: the long-term rate of growth. Year over year over year, Twitter has been a winner. True, its rate of growth has slowed somewhat recently. Mike Isaac at All Things D reported on Oct. 15 that “In the third quarter of this year, Twitter’s active user base grew by 39 percent over Q3 2012. In Q2, Twitter’s year-over-year growth rate had been 44 percent.”

Overlooking for now the thoroughly unreasonable notion that consistent YOY growth of 40 percent is somehow lackluster performance, offset that figure against the company’s status in March 2011: “For the past month, the average daily sign-up rate has been 460,000 new accounts, and Twitter has also marked a 182% increase” in mobile users in the previous year, Catharine Smith of The Huffington Post reported.

Contrast that with Twitter’s phenomenal rate of growth in March 2009. Adam Ostrow at Mashable reported: “The latest numbers from Nielsen Online indicate that Twitter grew 1,382% year-over-year in February.”

Other, more current metrics tell the same story. At Forbes, Chuck Jones reported that “U.S. advertising revenue was $165 million in the first half of 2013, an increase of 89% year over year.

“Twitter generated $121 million in advertising revenue in the June quarter, an increase of 104% year over year and 87% of its total revenue,” Jones reported in October, in a story that forecast profitability for Twitter in 2015.

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BUT IN other, powerful ways that elude the analysts, Twitter has assumed that irrefutable position in the media culture. The blue bird has become digital lingua franca, the word for its foundational transmission form — the tweet — now part of the language of our time. For its 220 million active users, more this year than last, Twitter has reordered the modern conversation, for better and worse.

More immediate than Facebook, Twitter facilitates the way we talk and think rightnow. The tweet that roars does so at the lightning speed the Internet has entitled us to expect. We’re consequently quicker to draw conclusions, render snap judgments, substitute snark for substance. To make irreversible mistakes.

Justine Sacco will walk the modern media trail of tears. It’s already started with her apology in a high place. A TV mea culpa may be next (calling David Letterman!). The All Apologies Tour is just beginning.

To some extent, what’s also started is a kind of survey class on the power and breadth of social media, and an object lesson for anyone who underestimates that power and breadth. It’s because of events-turned-processes-turned-events like this that anyone who thinks Twitter hasn’t permeated into the bedrock of the American digital era isn’t paying attention. They’re not paying attention to the millions of people, more year after year, who pay close attention to things on Twitter every minute of every single day of our rapid-fire lives. Paying attention when nobody thinks they are.

There’s one former senior director of corporate communications who can testify to that.

Image credits: Justine Sacco: Justine Sacco via Facebook. Sacco in Johannesburg: Zac via Twitter. IAC logo: © 2013 IAC. Parody movie poster: Via Zimbio. Twitter page views graph: From Twitter S-1 filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission, via Forbes. Twitter logos: © 2013 Twitter.

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