How To Ruin Your Life In 14 Minutes

Or, why we need to have a serious discussion about social media ethics.

Recently, two teenage girls in Gainesville, Florida made a video (note: NSFW) in which they spewed a truckload of racist comments. They posted the video on YouTube and subsequently ruined their lives. It took all of fourteen minutes. (Actually, probably twenty, if you account for the time it took to upload the video.) When the video went viral, these girls’ lives changed radically — and not for the better. They have received numerous death threats, have been forced to drop out of the high school they’d been attending, and have become the latest poster children for social media stupidity. (As of this writing, at least one of the girls has publicly apologized for her remarks.) These are just the immediate repercussions. What consequences they will face in the future remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: it will be a long time before these girls can escape the shadow cast by this regrettable and truly disastrous #socialmediafail.

Condemning these two girls seems redundant at this point (the video and the vicious ignorance it displays speak for themselves), and although I’m African-American, I’m not compelled to expend too much energy criticizing their racist remarks. However, as an online content creator, a former YouTube employee during its formative years, and a social media professional and enthusiast, I am compelled to use this incident as a springboard for having a serious discussion about the role of ethics in social media.

In just the last few years, social media has created a new generation of super-empowered individuals. We are now able to broadcast our ideas, our images, our videos, and our opinions like never before. It has increased both the size of our potential audiences and the speed with which we can reach those audiences. It’s given us the tools to support charitable causes, to speak out against questionable business practices, to chastise our political leaders, and to launch social movements that can potentially change the world.

It has also given us the tools to ruin lives — both our own as well as others.

Apart from reminding us that racism is still alive and well in the Obama Era, these Gainesville girls also remind us just how easy it is to commit reputation self-sabotage in the Social Media Era. Just ten years ago, their racist remarks would have been remembered by perhaps only a handful of their friends and classmates (since, obviously, they wouldn’t have been able to broadcast them so easily). In today’s world, thanks to YouTube and Internet search engines, their remarks will be remembered by thousands if not millions of people for the rest of their lives — and possibly for even longer than that. Indeed, social media gives new meaning to Mark Antony’s line in Julius Caesar: “The evil that men do lives after them;/ The good is oft interred with their bones.”

With that in mind, I believe it’s high time to engage in a broad and serious conversation about social media ethics. Some of these conversations are already taking place, but they tend to be confined to the business sphere. Either they approach the subject from a legal standpoint (i.e., how can a businesses/corporation best protect itself from embarrassment or liability?), or from a social media professional’s standpoint (i.e., what polices should social media professionals adopt when engaging with customers and audiences?).

I think we need to broaden the conversation, so that it includes more than just lawyers and social media experts. It should include educators, teachers, artists, parents, young people, as well as professionals in the public and private sectors — in short, anyone who uses or is affected by social media (which at this point means everyone). The goal of this conversation should be to highlight the new challenges we now face in the Social Media Era, and to come up with useful guidelines that will hopefully help us make better decisions when it comes to the things we choose to broadcast and post online.

Here are 5 key points that I think social media ethics needs to address:

1. In social media, there is no difference between public and private. Once upon a time — like, back in 2007 — there used to be quite a difference between the things we considered private and those we considered public. And according to the law, privacy narrowly defined is still a constitutionally protected right. But unfortunately, in the Social Media Era, this difference between public and private is quickly disappearing. And while you can rail against this reality, and even work to change it, the first rule of living and engaging in an online world should be to assume that anything you publicly post online could potentially be seen by the world at large. This “world” includes your current friends, your future employers, your past romantic partners, your competitors — and yes, even your mother.

2. Just because you can post something doesn’t mean you should. Freedom of speech — along with privacy, another constitutionally protected right — doesn’t necessarily guarantee freedom of consequence. And this is nowhere more true than in the social media landscape. Celebrities have lost high-paying endorsements after posting one foolish tweet. Activities like “sexting” have destroyed relationships and ruined careers. In social media, twenty seconds can cost you twenty years. Indeed, while more research still needs to be done to prove this, I suspect that the ease and speed with which people can broadcast their messages via social media sometimes short-circuits our inner ethical inhibitions (which, incidentally, also happens when we’re drunk), so that it’s only after the fact that we think to ourselves: Uh oh — perhaps I shouldn’t have posted that. In light of how fast we can broadcast our messages, and how long those messages can affect our lives, we need to be more careful in exercising better ethical judgment before clicking “post.” Not to the point where we become terrified of offending anyone — trust me, you’ll always manage to offend someone, best intentions aside — but at least where we can be reasonably sure that we’re not doing something that, once we’re ethically “sober” again, we won’t entirely regret.

3. Your online and offline selves might not be identical, but they’re joined at the hip. Let’s say you work as a third-grade teacher by day, but then write erotica fiction on your personal blog by night. The school you work for finds out and they decide to fire you. Naturally, you protest. Shouldn’t you be able to do both, you argue, since one is your offline self and the other is your online persona? Answer: well, in a perfect world, you should be able to do both, especially if you’ve created some distance between your offline and online selves (a different username, for instance). But the reality is, like the difference between public and private, the distance between our offline and online selves is quickly disappearing as well. Unless you take considerable precautions to protect your online identity, your online self is now married to your offline self — and it’s hard to get a divorce. So before we post anything online, publicly or privately, we should always be mindful of the kind of online identity we’re creating, since it will definitely affect our offline possibilities. (And I don’t say any of this in the abstract. I have a rather extensive online identity myself, one which probably won’t get me hired at a conservative think tank in D.C. anytime soon. Ah, well.

4. Will what I post cause harm to others? There’s no doubt social media increases our opportunities to do good — in part by making it easier to do good. (Let’s be honest, tweeting a good cause isn’t much of a sacrifice.) But while social media can often trigger the better angels of our nature — inspiring us to tweet good causes and “like” inspirational articles — it can just as often trigger the Lucifier Impulse. That is, people on social media platforms are quicker to post things of a cruel and judgmental nature than they would if they were face-to-face with the person/people they’re talking about. Whether they post anonymously or not, they nonetheless feel protected by the buffer that social media platforms create between themselves and their chosen target. Consequently, before posting something online, we should routinely ask the question: if I weren’t protected by this social media buffer, would I post this? Am I simply being cruel or unnecessarily judgmental? Would I say this to the person’s face if he or she were standing right in front of me? My guess is, if people actually started applying this rule to their online behavior, the quantity of content posted online would decrease considerably. And the quality of the content would vastly improve.)

5. Finally, call it the Social Media Golden Rule: post about others as you would have them post about you. This doesn’t mean that you should have nothing but kind things to say about people, let alone pay false compliments to people you dislike. By all means speak your mind, voice your opinions, live by your convictions. But be prepared for people to speak their minds and voice their opinions when it comes to you — and be willing to take the heat. I believe our online conversations would be a lot more productive and a lot more civil if only we practiced this simple yet hard-to-follow piece of advice. This isn’t about protecting your job or your online reputation or the company you work for, although by adhering to this principle you’d probably protect all three. Rather, this is about extending common decency, and ensuring that your online self behaves just as ethically as your offline self would, if not more so.

Needless to say, this is just the beginning of a larger and much deeper conversation. Some of these points might seem obvious, or like plain common sense. But as my mother is fond of saying, “common sense isn’t common.” And it seems to me that unless we start engaging in a serious, common sense-based conversation about the ethics of our online selves, we will continue to see bright, talented people ruin — or at least severely damage — their lives, their careers, and their futures, not because they’re bad people, but because they unfortunately clicked on the “post” button a little too soon.


P.S. – I’d love to hear your thoughts about this, so if you have an opinion, please share. Feel free to expand on my points, or even challenge them, but please try to observe the Social Media Golden Rule. It’ll make the conversation a lot more productive. Not to mention civil. TC mark


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  • Perfect Circles

    What is an article so thoughtful, so RELEVANT to our lives doing on TC?

    Also, it would be good to have plausible deniability.  If there’s a VIDEO of you saying stupid shit, you can’t really deny it was you.  But what if…someone hacked your FB account?  Or it was a different David posting articles on Thought Catalog?  Remember, on the internet no one knows you’re a dog unless you admit to it later.

  • Crystal

    Great article!

  • Daren Sirbough

    Hopefully it was a lesson learned for the girls. And hopefully it’s a lesson learned for society in regards to the damage that some freedom of speech can cause, yet some would call it ‘expressing which is a right’ . Not all freedom of speech helps society or the future of society.

  • Anonymous

    Wonderful article, excellent observations.

    I think what’s perhaps most upsetting is that, especially with very young people, its going to be a near-impossible struggle to keep them from posting videos like this one, or the UCLA girl’s rant on Asian students, or any of the millions of other things of that nature. I think what’s more likely to happen is kind of a societal numbing. If you look even briefly around the internet, you’ll see endless things being announced publicly (whether or not behind an anonymous screen name) that a few short years ago may have only been whispered in living rooms amongst loved ones as something you considered “true but politically incorrect.”

    Anyone knows that even the most extreme racist, sexist, bigoted, homophobic, or hateful sentiments are not new–for every video like the one you described, there are a million white teenagers like it who would say the same things to each other, though never publicly. Where you have the divide is the people who are compelled to put these kinds of ideas out there–perhaps in some misguided grab for attention–and those who are comfortable (and perhaps savvy enough) just saying it behind closed doors.

    I hope that, if anything, we can start having more open conversations at the kinds of hate and prejudices that so clearly live within us and are starting to bubble over onto the internet–whether on 4chan, YouTube, Twitter, or even just an average comment forum. I feel that even if we could convince young people to not post controversial opinions and ruin their lives, it’s not quite hitting the root of the problem. 

  • Guest

    Psst, there’s no constitutional right to privacy.

  • Anonymous

    Thoughtful article… but the Shakespeare quote was kinda roll-of-the-eye inducing. Just saying.

    • David McMillan

      Haha. Ah well, to each his own… or should I say, to thine own self be true.

  • Melissa Montoya

    Privacy isn’t a constitutionally protected right. I don’t usually comment, but you said this twice. Privacy isn’t mentioned in the Constitution. I believe Roe v. Wade is what protects our privacy. 

    • David McMillan

      Let me clarify my point re: the right to privacy. True, the right to privacy isn’t explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. However, several Supreme Court cases have found that such a right to privacy, narrowly defined, does exist, and can be protected by the Constitution. (See for instance Loving v. Virginia, Griswold v. Connecticut, and yes, Roe v. Wade.) From what I understand, the amendment most often invoked to defend the right to privacy is the 9th Amendment, which basically says that just because a particular right isn’t explicitly mentioned in the Constitution doesn’t mean that right doesn’t exist. But you’re right, if you’re looking for an explicit reference to the right to privacy, you won’t find it in the Constitution. 

      • Sara G

        Lawrence v. Texas as well.  The stronger right to privacy has been elucidated through 14th Am. (substantive due process).  The penumbras of the 9th Am. are fairly weak, unfortunately – it only pops up only once in awhile. 

    • Hamilton

      Fed 84, people. The Founders fought against a bill of rights until it became apparent they’d have to write one in order to get the Constitution ratified; they feared that the rights listed would become the only rights people would be technically be ensured by the government. The 9th Amendment was meant to clarify this. So although the right to privacy is not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, it can be considered a right granted by it. 
      Yes, there is Roe v Wade, Casey v Planned Parenthood.. But even in an age of judicial activism, of what some see as legislating from the bench, justices may not simply make things up and invent constitutional rights; they must stay within the boundaries of interpreting the Constitution, even if that interpretation is expansive. The United States operates on constitutionalism- the Constitution functions as higher law and must be abided by, above Acts of Congress and above the Supreme Court. 

  • Guest

    Although I think number 3 is true in a general sense, the example you used is off. Even if you become so good at writing erotic fiction that you start being published in paper form, that shouldn’t affect your teaching job as long as you’re keeping them totally separate. On the other hand, if you have a blog and mention how you hate all those little fuckers and want to stab some of them in the eye you should probably be fired.

  • RJGA13

    As the mother of 2 teenagers, I am saddened by this story but not shocked. Teenagers notoriously do not think through their actions. They do first and think later. We (the grown ups in the room) need to talk to them about this. NOT lecture, NOT do school assemblies – but actually talk to them. What do you want to bet that these girls are totally unsupervised on the internet, have parents that are clueless about Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc. Want to bet this was not the first risky thing they posted?

    Can I say I know everything my teens do? No, I don’t watch over their shoulders every time they are on the web. I am sure they are going to make their share of mistakes. But hopefully I will catch them on a stumble instead of watching them fall off a big cliff.   

  • Age

    Great article. Unfortunately, if you still have to write things like this is 2012, there’s just no hope.

    I watched about four minutes of the video and stopped because I was more annoyed by their voices and the ridiculous thought that kept flashing in my brain…”Oh, here’s a pretty girl and her chubby friend with glasses and low self-esteem behind her.” I know that’s mean.

    I’m not exactly sure what they said over the next nine minutes and fifty-nine seconds, but she was just speaking her mind and (just my opinion) she was spot on in her observations. As a young, black aspiring writer who refused to stay in college, I’m just fortunate enough to have loving parents who know my potential and haven’t given up on me quite yet-but, the clock is ticking faster than ever.

    It’s sad because, although there are plenty of non-blacks taking advantage of the system, a vast majority of black women back in the 90s set the standard for the type of people we, as a society, look at people who just don’t give a f*ck. Somewhere in another part of their lives, these two girls will grow up, realize their mistakes, and move on…Unless VH1 has anything to say about it in 10 years when they air “The Internet’s 40 Dumbest Youtube Posts of All Time.”

  • Angela Holmberg

    Fantastic article!

  • Ko Ricker

    Wait this isn’t about how social media can ruin your life, it’s about how stupidity can ruin your life.

  • Guest

    Ah man, just saw the video. The racism was bad enough, what made it worse was that they weren’t funny. 

  • Colbyt

    Very to the point.  Well said.  You mentioned your race;  I am most pleased that you could overlook the comments.  It says a lot about the ‘content of your’ character.  I’m white  and not quite as forgiving. 

  • Lauren

    another great internet rule is to only say things you can stand behind. whether it’s using the term ‘gay’ to offend someone (can you prove to me that gym class is gay? has gym class told you outright that it prefers relationships with other gym classes and not biology or law class?) or political thoughts, people need to know what they are talking about. i don’t know how many times i hear people say things like “planned parenthood’s only purpose is to abort babies!”. a bit of fact checking would have told this person that abortions are a tiny fraction of what planned parenthood does, so they need to a) restructure their argument against planned parenthood or b) figure out what about abortions bothers them and then seek information on that. it’s fine to be against abortion if you think women use it as birth control, but before making statements, look up how frequently that’s the case. not only will this make your stance more robust, but you’ll probably learn a little about how the world works along the way.

  • What She Said

    This is an excellent and very well-written piece. I couldn’t agree more with everything you said and applaud you for turning a racist rant by two immature teenagers into a lesson on the do’s and don’ts of social media. 

    I especially loved your thoughts in points #4 and 5, and have often thought and said many of the the same things. Social media, for all its benefits, IS making us ruder as a society because of the empowerment people feel speaking their mind from behind a computer screen. My rules for what I choose to post on my blog, Facebook, and Twitter are simple: 1.) If I wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, then I don’t say it online, and 2.) If I’d be ashamed to have my parents read it, then I don’t post it. As for those two girls, I hope they grow into mature, respectable adults who, in the wisdom that often (but not always) accompanies age, look back on their actions with a sense of humiliated horror. 

  • NoSexCity

    Everything you’ve said here is spot-on. I think most people have a hard time accepting that at this point, your internet self and your real self are considered to be one and the same — especially when it comes to employment. The frequency with which people are Googling each other (while frightening) has definitely become the norm.

    Those girls will probably never fully live this down. I am curious if there will at some point be a way to protect people under a certain age that have made mistakes online as those girls did. If your legal records are sealed after age 18, why should your online identity remain out there for anyone to look over?

    Let’s face it: most of us wrote dumb/embarrassing notes when we were in middle school. Some of us had to read them out loud in front of the whole classroom. I cannot even imagine how damaging it would be for those kinds of things to not only be broadcasted across the entirety of the internet, but readily available for any number of years after.

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