November 10, 2015

GROSKAUFMANIS | How Social Media Immortalizes Mistakes

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By JACQUELINE GROSKAUFMANIS

It’s important to make mistakes. I know this from quotes, proverbs, seasoned elders and my own experience. Even in empirical science, we learn that mistake-making is a huge part of adaptive learning. So as humans, we tolerate it, and as we get older we learn to appreciate it in retrospect. However, when the Internet was integrated into the mistake-making process, it forever changed the ways in which we are allowed to explore and fail.

Nowadays, you can essentially ruin your life in 140 or fewer characters. You don’t need malicious intent, violence or even an aim to offend, you simply need poor wording or misinterpretation. If you are perceived as offensive, then with the right (or wrong) spin and enough attention, your mistake can go viral. Unlike our parents, their parents and their parents’ parents, we are held to a higher standard — one that we are often unaware of altogether.

Justine Sacco — an infamous example of Internet malpractice — knows the repercussions of making a digital mistake all too well. In 2013, Sacco became a poster-child for Internet shaming after she sent out an offensive Tweet (in which she claims to have been attempting satire) that made an ignorant racial comment on the AIDS epidemic. Immediately after hitting send, Sacco boarded a 12 hour flight, during which her Tweet went viral, beginning the Twitter trend #HasSaccoLandedYet. The New York Times, CNN and countless other media outlets picked up her story, hailing it an iconic example of “trial by social media.” This is a perfect way to view the web nowadays: an ever-working, ever-watching jury. Which is good when working toward social justice, but it also catalyzes general censorship.  

In Sacco’s case — regardless of her intention — the Tweet was obviously crude and guilty of trivializing a struggle that is very real to people who don’t experience the same kind of privilege that allows her to joke about it. This is a conclusion that millions of people have drawn, along with other connotative assumptions about Sacco’s general quality of character, from fewer than 140 characters and zero organic encounter with her. On one hand, you can’t blame people for creating judgments based on such offensive content. But on the other hand, one has to consider the fact that in today’s day and age, the option of redemption or even explanation has disappeared into thin air all alongside the mass exposure that the Internet provides.

The Internet can also be a bit of a mine field when used for communication, especially when that communication is intended to be comic or satirical. Although each of our digital footprints vary, most of us have left some kind of trail behind us, to which we are permanently chained and thus permanently held responsible for. While this accountability can be beneficial, it also means that the option to change and grow as a person without baggage from the past is no longer existent.

Is this an argument that we should be able to be complete morons on the Internet and insult whomever we choose? Not exactly. We’re always subject to the repercussions of our actions, and that only seems fair. However, I would argue that the Internet often gives rise to disproportionate punishment for ignorance — especially when it comes from an unfortunate place of misunderstanding.

Generations before us could apologize and be forgotten. We are etched in stone, and our mistakes are screenshotted and forwarded, with our words often translating into our reputations. Sometimes these reputations are deserved, but sometimes an all-consuming miscommunication leads us to label someone as something they simply are not, sometimes without even meeting them.

We’ve all said some things we wish we hadn’t, myself included. Luckily for me, none of these occurred on the Internet. In real life you can see the faces of those you are talking to, pick up social cues, recover from whatever stupid language trip you encountered. If that fails, real life gives you the luxury of assuming that those you are talking to will forget what you said someday, anyways. But the computer isn’t so generous. Screenshots, reposts and the fact that every Tweet you ever send is archived in the Library of Congress all guarantee that any stupid things you say will outlive you, and will definitely outlive your attempts to try to apologize for them. The Internet is permanent in one way or another, and in that permanence we see some of the value in mistakes being stripped away. In a perfect world, the repercussions of mistakes would be temporary and bearable — injuring you so that you can learn, not handicapping you permanently and certainly not destroying your life.

Jacqueline Groskaufmanis is a freshman studying English and Government in the College of Arts and Sciences. Her posts appear on alternate Tuesdays this semester. She can be reached at jag427@cornell.edu.

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