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In our culture, it isn’t unusual for what a story or event one might normally perceive as local interest touch the consciousness and hearts of people nationwide. When a young child in a rural community goes missing, the nation seems to hold its collective breath, waiting for the end result of the search. When a young woman is denied admission to a military academy based on her gender, we debate the legality and morality of the case. We may never meet these people, but in some cases we may accept that we share a common bond and therefore feel it necessary to share our opinions.
Recently, a young woman in Fulton, Mississipi made national headlines when her school’s administrators denied permission for her to wear a tuxedo and escort her female date to the senior prom. Feeling discriminated, the student took legal action, which resulted in the prom’s cancellation. What began as an event of limited local interest quickly ballooned into a matter of national concern over gay/lesbian. This student, who wanted nothing more than to enjoy her prom, turned literally overnight into an activist or a troublemaker – depending on which viewpoint you read.
In the time of Rosa Parks, there was no Internet to publicize the conflicts that gave rise to the powerful civil rights movement, yet through word of mouth and a willingness to participate among the greater community one saw Parks’ simple refusal to give up her bus seat blossom into a series of stirring protests and events that made discrimination against race illegal in this country. With the example before us now, we can witness first hand how social media has effected how the nation feels about various issues.
The Social Media Backlash
Subsequent stories of Constance McMillan’s situation continue to reach audiences far beyond the Mississippi borders. The Huffington Post shares photos ripped from students’ social pages of an alternative prom thrown attended by her classmates while Constance was directed elsewhere to a “fake” event. Twitter searches for the name of the high school in question lead to many condemnations of the school’s alleged treatment of McMillan, and if one pulls up the school on Google Maps, there are more than 40 one-star reviews, all set by people responding to this issue.
Probably the most damning evidence that social media could cause problems for people involved in this controversy comes from a stream of comments in a blog that exposes pictures of the secret prom. Building on reactions from at least two of McMillian’s classmates (who defended the school’s actions), other commentators proceeded to expose the students’ names and Facebook and Flickr links with the prediction that anybody tied to this high school and the shunning of McMillan is basically doomed.
While the social profiles in question on this thread have since been made private or deleted, it’s possible that many could have been subjected to screen shots and posted elsewhere, as pictures of the prom were leaked over the Internet. Whether or not any of McMillan’s classmates will suffer discrimination or hardship themselves in the job market because of this is uncertain. The fact remains, however, that even the simple act of posting a photo, a link, or an opinion on a social site presents the opportunity for receiving mass praise, or major backlash.
Has social media ruined the lives of anyone involved in this issue? It’s difficult to say now, though on the outset it appears public opinion of the school’s administration isn’t very positive. Sympathy for McMillan’s plight and subsequent treatment arguably outweighs support of the school’s decision – McMillan has appeared on national television and received support from various celebrities, though one might conclude she is suffering a bit of backlash herself, as certain comments suggest she is milking the sympathy for attention. Either way, McMillan stands to benefit from the social buzz – she’s been offered generous amounts of scholarship money and is hailed as a role model for gay and lesbian youth. Meanwhile, one will wonder if anybody else attached to this high school encounters obstacles in life based on their connection, complicit or otherwise.
Saving Your Life with Social Media
Once you post an embarrassing picture, a snide remark, or something equally damning to your reputation, it’s out there. You might think you can turn back time and erase the evidence, but web archive retrieval or a visitor with a quickness for the print screen button can come back to haunt you in the long. People will debate whether or not high school students posting prom pictures is a bad thing, but given the context of this story the motives could be interpreted in a certain way.
Are the students who attended this alternative party where McMillan was allegedly excluded mocking the young girl, or did they just want to share memories? This may not be the best example of how social media usage can come back to burn you, but given the publicity of these events it does illustrate the power of a social network’s reach. If somehow your business page espouses an unpopular policy or replies in a negative manner to customer feedback, it could be detrimental to your reputation. If your personal profiles are connected to your business presence, it’s advised to tread carefully so that one doesn’t harm the other.
- Keep as much controversy off your pages. Some hot-button issues (religion, politics, etc.) can’t always be resolved in your favor. If the purpose of your page doesn’t involve touchy subjects, do your best to keep your focus on your brand and cater to your following.
- Avoid confrontation. There are people who live to goad you in hopes of encouraging a blow-up. Always keep your cool online, even if you use the same profile name over multiple profiles. It doesn’t take much for somebody to Google you and make your life hell.
- Hire trustworthy admins. If you’re unable to manage your social presence, make certain the people in charge can be trusted with promoting your image online. Don’t let one hothead remark posted as a knee-jerk reaction spiral into a PR nightmare.
Kathryn Lively is a social media specialist assisting clients with social media optimization and travel social media services. Clients include Gainesville hotels, European hotels, and Virginia web design firms.