I have spent around 20 hours writing a blog post that will launch tomorrow. Once it posts, I will get a couple thousand readers and maybe 100 retweets. That's a nice reward for my effort. (I appreciate every comment and share my blog receives, and I do my best to acknowledge most of the people who take the time to do so.)
But this week I made two tweets about the Justine Sacco affair that will be seen by 1,000,000% more people than my blog post. One appeared on Mashable and the other on Buzzfeed. Combined, these two tweets took me perhaps 90 seconds to compose. (And, in retrospect, I'm mildly embarrassed of my support for the Gogo tweet, which exploited someone's misfortune, but just as Justine cannot take back her tweet, neither can I take back mine.)
This is a good reminder to everyone who bemoaned that Justine Sacco faced a backlash that hurt her reputation and cost her her job: once we publish something, we lose control. We cannot manage how people use it and we certainly cannot control how people perceive it. Each of us has a right to say what we want, but everyone else has a right to judge and react to it. And say what you want about the "mob mentality" of social media, but it is no different in the real world than on Twitter--once someone engages people's emotions, be it anger or joy, the right brain takes over. Once that happens, the left brain's logic and restraint go out the window. Social doesn't change this, it just brings more scale to it.
To me, there is irony in seeing people who have used social media to build their reputations and careers now gripe at how social media can harm someone's reputation and career. As we strive for "viral" impact of a positive sort, why would we be surprised or disturbed when it happens in reverse? If we are going to believe content that positively engages emotions or logic can create benefits for people and brands, then by very definition, don't we also have to believe that content that engages negative emotions or logic can do the same in reverse?
The reputation train goes in both directions. We don't control the train--we can only influence its direction by being aware and vigilant of how people may react to our public communications.