Angry, Unfiltered Words: The Digital Tattoo

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digital tattooUnless you’ve been living  in  a cave or a Tibetan Monastery, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the  young boy that had walked away from his mother – and in the moments that followed a firestorm of activity on social media turned a relaxing day with the family at the Cincinnati Zoo zoo into an international story.

As has played out on nightly TV, cable news and social media,  , a 17 year-old Lowland Mountain Gorilla was shot by zoo-keepers after the aforementioned young boy made it over a 3-foot barrier and a 4-foot hedge and subsequently fell into a moat surrounding the gorilla exhibit. Fearing that Harambe, the massive gorilla might harm the boy, the zoo shot and killed the gorilla. That shot sent shock waves of criticism across social media, indicting everyone involved; from innocent bystanders, the mother, the zoo and even the media.

This article is not about how the tragedy could have been avoided. Rather, it’s about how social media plays a role in public shaming, rumor mongering and damaged lives. Moreover, the lives that are damaged are not just those immediately involved in the incident – but also those involved in the social media frenzy. I call this the DIGITAL TATTOO.

The incident at the Cincinnati Zoo was only the most recent shaming episode to grace the digital landscape. Although many hear and participate in the ugly banter, few see and feel the aftermath of such public ridicule.

For example, the March 21st, 2013 article in Forbes Magazine, highlights the case of Adria Richards. Adria was attending a developer’s conference one weekend. As a young woman in the IT field she likely was one of the few females attending the event. While seated at the conference she overheard two male attendees making what she felt were overtly sexist jokes.

Like many young women surrounded by a largely male audience, the tone and content of the jokes made her feel uncomfortable.  Rather than confronting the men directly, she snapped and then tweeted their photos in an attempt to publicly shame them. This resulted in the firing of both men due to the resulting social media shaming. However, the public outcry didn’t end there either. Adria’s company became the victim of a Denial of Service Attack (DoS) and a call for the firing of Adria for her handling of the situation. The result: Adria lost her job.

The vitriolic slander and rancor against Adria went well beyond contempt – and escalated to downright threats, with one person, I’ll call “George” tweeting, “I hope she f#cking dies” as well as, “Maybe I can invent a device that rapes women over the internet.”

Who would think one inappropriate comment and one tweet at a tech conference would end with Adria and the two men being unemployed? Who would have thought that each would have been so ferociously attacked by faceless strangers? Who would have thought that their story would play out across the pages of Forbes Magazine?


In an April 15th article on CNN, writer Todd Leopold interviewed Father James Martin, a Roman Catholic priest and editor-at-large of America magazine. Father Martin suggested that one’s initial online disapproval evolves often to “as a complete shaming of the person.”

He went on to say, “There’s a real cruelty that comes with this mob mentality. I sometimes compare it to bullies in a schoolyard all ganging up on person who, for one second, said the wrong thing.”

Isn’t that what really occurred in the case of Harambe the gorilla, the little boy and his parents? One comment evolved into thousands of negative tweets and posts about the parents and the zoo. There were lost of comments, assumptions and conjecture before anyone really knew the facts.


I recently discovered that a friend had a tattoo for many years. I had no idea until it somehow came up in a conversation. I asked him why he decided  to add the ink to his leg. He laughed, “It was in a moment of weakness. Everybody on spring break was doing it I really didn’t give it enough thought. Now it’s a bit too late.”

Social media is a lot like a poorly thought out decision to get a tattoo. We often type before we think. In fact, social media is littered with such contempt for the ill-timed joke, poor spelling, inappropriate photo, typo, wrong-sided political commentary et al. However, while we often see the tweet or post, what we don’t see is the result when days, weeks, months, years later that your errant comment that was made during the heat of the moment is eventually seen by an employer, future employer or college coach. I call this the Indelible Theory. Meaning: everything posted to the internet lives on forever. It’s more than just a threat made to teenagers to keep them from posting. It’s a digital tattoo.


According to research conducted by Career Builders in 2014, 43% of employers search the social media postings of applicants.

Some of the reasons listed to pass on a candidate included:

  • Job candidate posted provocative or inappropriate photographs or information – 46 percent
  • Job candidate posted information about them drinking or using drugs – 41 percent
  • Job candidate had poor communication skills – 32 percent
  • Job candidate had discriminatory comments related to race, gender, religion etc. – 28 percent
  • Job candidate was linked to criminal behavior – 22 percent
  • Job candidate’s screen name was unprofessional – 21 percent


We often forget that a negative tweet might not just be discovered on your twitter account, but on the account of others with whom you have communicated. For example, the Twitter user I call “George” will forever be known by his infamous tweet. There’s a good chance that when he applies for a job that single tweet made in 2013 will be discovered by an employer. Thus the often unseen results of a moment of weakness – when his bravado got the best of him —  is forever emblazoned on the ethers of social media… or in his case Forbes Magazine as well.


The same is true for aspiring athletes. According to a US Youth Soccer survey of college coaches, 322 responded and suggested that social media plays an important role in their recruiting process. A whopping 89 percent of those coaches said a player’s social media presence has negatively affected their view of the athlete.

On May 9th of this year I wrote an article about this same issue. I related how a local high school football player had tweeted one negative comment about a girl in his school. That comment was seen by a coach that was likely using “social listening” software such as GeoFeedia. The coach promptly contacted the young man and rescinded his scholarship offer. Again, the Indelible Theory.


Long after the story of Harambe has been replaced by the next series of tragedies and scandals on social media and cable news, the tweets and post of thousands of angry, sarcastic and negative people will still be indelibly etched into the digital canvas of time. Those unfiltered words that were typed at the speed of thought might someday unravel the very lives of their authors.



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