ALICIA ANN LYNCH PROBABLY DIDN’T THINK TWICE before she posted the photo of herself in the outfit she’d put together for her office Halloween party: a Victoria’s Secret running skirt, blue T-shirt, and road-race bib, accessorized by a faux gash on her forehead and bloody, bruised legs. The 22-year-old Michigan resident uploaded the photo to her Instagram and Twitter accounts, as she had done with so many photos before, hashtagging it #boston #marathon #runner. Her costume: a Boston Marathon bombing victim.
It did not take long for the backlash to start. “You should be ashamed,” tweeted Sydney Corcoran, the Lowell 18-year-old who had been injured in the attack six months earlier. “My mother lost both her legs and I almost died in the marathon. You need a filter.” And that would prove to be one of the relatively kind responses.
On the day of Lynch’s post, someone else dug up and posted racy photos she had uploaded to Tumblr. Someone found her home address — it wasn’t that hard; she had once Tweeted a photo of her driver’s license — and people began calling and calling and calling her parents, saying they’d “slit her throat,” and theirs, and tear off Lynch’s face, too. The mob figured out where she worked and got in touch with her boss. They thought they figured out where her father worked and gave the place some nasty online reviews (but had the wrong guy). They figured out the name of her best friend and threatened to blow up her house and hang her child. “Nice costume,” wrote someone at the Boston site of BarstoolSports.com, whose anonymous commenters helped lead the attacks. “Hope your mom gets cancer.”
Lynch quickly apologized and tried to get the posters to stop sending her death threats and saying she deserved to be raped. But the backlash continued into November. She was fired from her job. Eventually, she released a statement via BuzzFeed, again apologizing and acknowledging that she could not undo her actions. “I wore a costume to work,” she said, “with people that know me . . . ” She had even discussed the idea with a friend whose father had run the Boston Marathon.
In another lifetime, or even just a few years ago, the worst that might have happened was that Alicia Ann Lynch went to her office party, elicited a few whispers about her costume, maybe was asked to go home and change. Instead, we live in a time where we broadcast everything to hordes of people we don’t know. Lynch regularly posted to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr. So do lots of people. Seventy-three percent of adults who go online are active on social media; among 18- to 29-year-olds, the number climbs to 90 percent. The smartphone has had much to do with this. “The phone has become the predominant portal for Internet access,” says David Greenfield, a psychologist and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction in West Hartford, Connecticut. “Which means you can do it all the time. There is literally no threshold to cross.”
But in doing what almost everyone does, Lynch opened herself up to the sort of response that typically only happens when people are allowed to respond anonymously and from afar. And so they do — and they do not hold back. Many psychologists, including Pamela Rutledge of the Media Psychology Research Center in Boston, say that social media doesn’t make us meaner or bolder. It just provides an easy-to-access, very public outlet to air our opinions, without the worry of face-to-face confrontation. But, as the following cautionary tales show, the Internet can do a very good job of making a spectacle of even our most innocuous intentions.
PICKING FIGHTS IN THE FACEBOOK COMMENTS
MARC ORFALY HAD JUST GOTTEN HOME from work when the Facebook post came in. It was late, past midnight. Things were not going well at Pigalle, the now-closed restaurant he’d owned since 2001, and were about to get worse. “Really horrible pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving!!” the post began from a woman named Sandy Tremblay who’d been a guest the previous week. “I don’t have a clue as to why you would think that throwing pumpkin chunks into a cold pre baked pie shell and then covering it with a cream sauce that literally tasted like vomit . . . would in any way be something that can be called pumpkin pie?”
Orfaly thought about responding but went to bed instead. When he woke up, though, he was still angry. “hey sandy,” he typed, then: “go [expletive] yourself! If you have any questions on how to proceed please call me,” and listed the cellphone number that, perhaps unsurprisingly, he has since had to change.
Orfaly would like to distance himself from the episode — as would his current bosses — but how can he? Google his name and, a year and a half later, the first item on the list is “Pigalle Chef Marc Orfaly Tells Diner on Facebook to ‘go f . . .”
Tremblay says she’d posted the review without thought of any outcome. By morning, though, “I saw that Marc had responded to me and I was like Oh, my God, this guy is having a conversation with me and it’s not nice. Everything started to snowball,” she recalls. Orfaly eventually deleted his comments, but her original post remained, so most of the public backlash, she felt, was directed at her and not at the guy who’d suggested that “a good resolution judging from your fat face would be to give up the pie sweet pea xo.”
Tremblay still feels bad — Orfaly “told me he got death threats,” she says — but believes that both his comments and the blowback from other people was a complete “character assassination” with sexist overtones that probably wouldn’t have occurred if she’d been a man. She fielded hundreds of calls from around the world and answered her door more than once to find some reporter standing there expectantly. “In retrospect, I wish I had written a completely different post,” she says. “I call things the way I see them, but I could have done so in a different way. Though I kid you not: The pie was exactly as I described it.” Still, she admits she would not have said so to Orfaly’s face. “But because I could sit in my office and type and not have to have a conversation or even eye contact, it was so much easier to say what I wanted.” Over Christmas, she got a message from a friend informing her that she’d made a top 10 list: the worst smackdowns in Internet history.
The lesson here: Start a fight online and everyone gets hurt. “There are three rules people need to live by,” says Dr. Don S. Dizon, an oncologist at Mass. General who gives lectures to medical professionals on the safe ways to use social media. “Don’t tweet or post when fatigued, inebriated, or angry. Most bad behavior is related to one of those three.”
GETTING TOO SERIOUS ABOUT FUN
NORTH ATTLEBOROUGH MOM of three Mary Abdalla has, she admits, a bit of a Facebook problem. It was one thing when she could only access it through her computer. When she was pregnant with her middle child, other moms she met online provided her with support; seven years later, she still chats with them on Facebook throughout the day. They’re not people she knows IRL — in real life — she says, but they’re real conversations. And now that she has the Facebook app on her smartphone, Abdalla says, “every time I have a free minute I’ll check it.” She spends much of her day in the car, waiting to collect her kids from school or some activity, and so she has lots of free minutes. When she’s not the one driving, she has even more. “My husband is like ‘Oh my God, put away your phone,’ ” she says. “He doesn’t get it. He’s on Facebook, too, but he’ll check it maybe once, twice a month.”
Then came Candy Crush. Facebook friends had invited her to play — they needed to recruit others to get more “lives” themselves — and so she gave it a try. “At first, I thought, this game is so stupid,” she says. But soon she couldn’t stop. Playing against Facebook friends also let her know when others were advancing at a more rapid pace. “You don’t want people to pass you,” she says. Plus, it was fun to look at — “flashing lights and all these sounds.”
Greenfield, the psychologist, says the compulsive overuse of social media and its games is fairly common these days, particularly among teens and twentysomethings. According to one recent report, the average 35- to 49-year-old spends three hours a day on social networks. “When you check into Facebook or launch a game, you don’t know what or whom you’re going to see or how you’re going to do,” Greenfield says. “It’s unpredictable and very stimulating.” What’s more, he says, everyone who uses the Internet experiences disassociation. You think you’re on for 10 minutes when really you’re on for an hour.
One fortysomething writer I know fell into a bad relationship with Prolific, a Boggle takeoff accessed through Facebook. Sure, he was never amazing at meeting his deadlines; he tended to obsess over every word. (He asked to remain anonymous to protect his professional reputation, given that you never know what your editors are reading on a Sunday when they’re not reading the copy you’ve yet to turn in.) But Prolific, he says, “ruined my life.” Each game is three minutes long and played in real time, against as many as 20 people at once. “Three minutes is nothing,” he says. Until one three-minute game turns into 50 three-minute games. Which it has, a lot. Since 2010, he has played 22,718 games of Prolific. That adds up to 1,100 hours, or about 47 full days.
Six months ago, Abdalla knew she needed to get out of the Candy Crush clutches. “I was wasting so much time,” she says. “I have tons of hobbies, but when was the last time I did anything? Like, I used to garden.” Instead, she spent her time harassing Facebook friends to play. The turning point was overhearing her littlest boy say to one of the others: “Mom’s on Candy Crush again. Just get it yourself.” Says Abdalla, “I tell people now, ‘Do not play the game. Not even once.’ ”
FORGETTING WHO’S WATCHING
BOSTON ATTORNEY JEFFREY SOILSON says that social media posts are starting to come up as evidence in all sorts of trials, especially in family court. Take the mother who’s supposed to stay sober in order to retain visitation rights showing up on Instagram with a beer in hand, or the father who’s asked to have child support payments reduced posting from his vacation on a tropical island. “This is the kind of thing that is being provided to judges as evidence,” Soilson says. “You just put someone on the stand and say, ‘Is this your Facebook page?’ ”
In 2011, Boston College student Dana Snay cost her family $80,000 with a single Facebook post about a court settlement her father had reached with his former bosses at Gulliver Prep in Miami. “Mama and Papa Snay won the case against Gulliver,” she wrote to some 1,200 Facebook friends. “Gulliver is now officially paying for my vacation to Europe this summer. SUCK IT.” Within four days, the school caught wind of the post and claimed it violated the settlement’s confidentiality agreement. Earlier this year, a court agreed.
“A big problem with social media as it’s currently designed is that it’s hard to tell what’s private and what’s public,” says Judith Donath, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and author of The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online , out this month. “It’s hard to know who’s part of the conversation. Or how easily things can be forwarded or taken out of context and how long-lasting comments can be.”
Insurance companies, meanwhile, are getting in on the action, selling more personal injury endorsement coverage, which protects social media users in the event they libel, slander, defame, or invade someone’s privacy. “Many such suits are being settled out of court, but when they do go to trial, the settlements tend to be huge,” says Jim Hyatt, a vice president at Quincy-based Arbella Insurance. “Someone can tweet to lots of followers and instantly put someone else in a bad place.” By 2012, according to an estimate from the Connecticut-based reinsurance firm Gen Re, there had been 36 verdicts in the United States against individuals for things they had done and said and shared online. The total awards came to nearly $87 million.
TAKING SELFIES THAT SEEM LIKE A GOOD IDEA AT THE TIME
EVER SINCE SMARTPHONES came equipped with front-facing cameras, the “selfie” has taken over social media, particularly Instagram. Many are in questionable taste. Like the one from Florida high schooler Malik Whiter, who snapped a selfie at school while his pregnant teacher went into early contractions in the background. Or the one of a woman the New York Post photographed taking a selfie while a suicidal man threatened to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge in the background. Magazine editor Jason Feifer created the Tumblr “Selfies at Funerals” after discovering a bunch of photos of young people taking exactly those.
Others are just silly. In late April, Maine high schooler Brian Genest was visiting colleges in Florida when he attempted to take a selfie with a squirrel just, you know, because he could. The squirrel, as you might imagine, retaliated. What resulted was Genest using up his 15 minutes of fame when a photo his mother snapped of him running as a squirrel clung to his shirt went viral.
While this isn’t quite life-ruining — though it’s hard to believe that anyone would willingly put himself in a position of having “Squirrel Goes Nuts on Maine Teenager Taking Selfie” attached to his online footprint — a survey by Kaplan Test Prep found that 31 percent of college admissions officers review applicants’ social media accounts. And it’s hard to know how they’ll interpret what they find. “People are very multidimensional, but their social media tends to be very one-sided,” says Donath. “It’s difficult to know what image you’re presenting, who’s looking — and what they’re taking from it.”
Consider the high school senior and Bowdoin College hopeful whose application was rejected after she spent an information session at the school firing off negative tweets about her fellow prospectives. Her grades apparently were what did her in, but as dean of admissions Scott Meiklejohn told The New York Times , “We would have wondered about the judgment of someone who spends their time on their mobile phone and makes such awful remarks.”
BRINGING YOUR ONLINE LIFE TO WORK
SOCIAL MEDIA has become an important tool for professionals, but that doesn’t mean the behavior on it is altogether professional. Many doctors, in particular, have run into trouble. Alexandra Thran was an ER doctor in Rhode Island when she posted vaguely about a patient on Facebook. She was reprimanded, fined by the state medical board, and stripped of her hospital privileges. One ongoing malpractice case in Texas involves the family of a woman who died during a low-risk cardiac operation while an anesthesiologist tasked with monitoring her vital signs was allegedly cruising the Internet on his iPad.
Everybody is online, says Kabrina Chang, an assistant professor of business law at Boston University, but only a small proportion — 7 or 8 percent — think that employers would actually be interested in what they do there. “But, yes,” she says, “these days, Facebook can get you fired.”
On March 18, 79-year-old Carol Thebarge was the subject of a glowing feature in her local newspaper in Claremont, New Hampshire. It talked about her long teaching career, the program she had founded for at-risk teens, and the scholarship she’d been giving in the name of her late husband, also a teacher, for the past seven years. “ ‘Local Woman Helps Others Through Her Teaching’ was the headline,” says Thebarge. “I took the photos at prom. I won awards in the yearbook. I was like the school grandmother and the only person some of these kids seemed to be able to share things with.”
Five years ago, Thebarge had excitedly joined Facebook. “I didn’t want to be left behind,” she says. She collected some 3,000 current and former students as friends, but she had rules. “I’d only warn people once,” she says. “I’d say, ‘Guys, you wouldn’t talk like that in my living room. Clean it up or I’ll have to drop you.’ And they’d stop. To me, those were teaching moments.” A few years back, the high school where Thebarge taught asked her to remove the students, according to its new social media policy, and she did so reluctantly. “And then they came to me and wanted to know what they did wrong,” she says. “I was like, wait a minute, this is abandonment.” So she took them back. And this April, Thebarge chose to be fired rather than unfriend her students.
Thebarge is unbowed. She doesn’t see how interacting with students on social media is any different from tutoring students in her home, which she’s also done for many years. “The message we’re sending is that teachers cannot be trusted,” she says. “And that’s what kids are hearing. What’s next — no talking to students in the hallway?” Just the other day, she had a Facebook message from a student asking for help. “He said, ‘They kicked me out of school and I’m lost. I really need your help,’ ” she says. “I said, ‘Where are you?’ I picked him up and took him to lunch. And I listened. I’m not giving that up.” Meanwhile, she feels she has been “libeled by inference. My career has been long and fantastic, but to go out this way was not my plan.”
TWEETING WITHOUT THINKING
North Attleborough 18-year-old Nick Barbieri has hosted a popular YouTube channel for gamers since he was 15. He lives most of his life online, tweeting throughout the day both for fun and money. So when the school cheekily announced there would be (yet another) snow day on Twitter, he voiced his frustration with mandatory make-up days by retweeting the original message, “@NorthHigh1: No school tomorrow-see you in June!” then adding a few hashtags, as well as the words “[expletive] off.”
“I didn’t think anything of it,” Barbieri says. “It was really just a run-of-the-mill thing, the sort of thing I do to drive traffic to my brand.” (He has some 100,000 Twitter followers and another 250,000 subscribers on YouTube). Though certainly he never would have used the word in front of a teacher. He has never once gotten into trouble at school.
The school didn’t take it so casually. An official called him at home that night asking him to delete the tweet. He did — but over the next few days was pulled out of class three times to discuss it. Told he was facing possible suspension, he ultimately was issued six hours of detention.
But this is one story that ends happily. Barbieri reached out to the Massachusetts office of the ACLU on Twitter, asking it to help him “save the 1st amendment,” and the organization took up the cause. “I’m interested in setting a precedent about social media rules,” he says. “And I just wanted to be sure my record stayed clean.”
The ACLU wrote the school to argue that the administration had no authority to punish Barbieri for things said off school grounds, even if they were about the school, and that punishing Barbieri was a violation of his First Amendment rights. It asked that his detentions be revoked and that the school issue him an official apology.
That apology part never happened, Barbieri says, but that’s OK. His Twitter following jumped by some 70,000 since the incident, in part from the media coverage, and three months later he still hasn’t run into the school administrator responsible for discipline IRL. “I don’t know if she would be avoiding me specifically, and I understand her point of view,” he says. “I think it was all just a bit of a big misunderstanding.”
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Alyssa Giacobbe is a writer in Newburyport. Follow her on Twitter @alyssagiacobbe. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.