Think Before You Tweet: Going Viral Isn't Always Good



  • Anything published online can go viral within minutes
  • Ill-considered or dashed-off comments may come back to haunt you

My first gig out of undergrad was on Capitol Hill. I was a legislative correspondent for then Senator Al Gore and, in case you’re wondering, a legislative correspondent is simply a fancy title for someone who responds to constituent mail on legislative and regulatory issues.

My research areas included health care, taxation, higher education, historic preservation, and the arts. It was a great way to stay up on current affairs, and I responded to inquiries and complaints on everything from Medicare reform to Robert Mapplethorpe.

On my first day, Senator Gore’s chief of staff, Peter Knight, offered me a single piece of advice. “Remember,” he said, “anything you write can end up on the front page of the paper.” I took that advice to heart and was always very deliberate in my research and responses.

The only time the content of one of my letters did end up on the front page of a paper was a pledge of support to save a historic post office in rural east Tennessee — a pledge that was later fulfilled, so I’ll chalk that up as a good thing.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reminded of Peter’s advice and that it is perhaps even more relevant today than it was when I was working on the Hill. In fact, I would even expand it a bit to account for the changes in technology over the last 20 years. In 2011, it’s important to remember that what you write, tweet, text, or post can end up going viral and make the front page of virtually every paper or blog or message board or…you get the picture.

You may have heard about Emma Sullivan. She’s the 18-year-old Kansas high school student who recently tweeted, “just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot.” Yes, her tweet was rude and disrespectful, but I’m pretty sure she thought it was harmless at the time. After all, it was only going to be read by a handful of her 65 high school friend followers, right?

Think again, Emma. The governor’s office takes this stuff pretty seriously. One of his staffers read the tweet and promptly notified the high school. Emma, who claims to have never been in any kind of trouble, was immediately called to the principal’s office and told bluntly that she was an embarrassment to the school and that she would be writing an apology letter to the governor.

Of course, the story went viral with debates raging about Emma’s lack of respect and the governor’s critical response. Eventually, the governor’s office retreated and admitted to overreacting to the teen’s snarky tweet. Emma, whose pre-Brownback tweets were pretty much limited to the Twilight series, suddenly started quoting Gandhi and championing free speech.

Her first tweet following her infamous one read, “I knew this day would come, but I didnt know itd be today #makingheadlines.” [sic] This time, the message went to her 65 previous followers plus the additional 15,870 she had accumulated in one day with her newfound fame.

Emma’s 15 minutes could end up working to her advantage and, who knows, even impacting her educational and career direction as she prepares for college. Jeff Toole’s headlines, on the other hand, could cost him his job.

Toole, as you may know, is the Chief Financial Officer for Texas A&M’s athletic department. Late last month, Toole inexplicably called A&M President R. Bowen Loftin a “putz” and an “unqualified puppet” on an Aggie fan message board. Since he was using his screen name, UtayAg, Toole erroneously thought his comments would be anonymous. Oops.

In a previous post a few months before, Toole had revealed his identity and position with the athletic department. His comments about Loftin were in the Houston Chronicle the following day and, you guessed it, went viral soon thereafter.

While Toole maintains that what he wrote was his personal opinion and, in no way, reflected the opinions of the athletic department, the damage had been done. President Loftin’s spokesperson said the president was aware of the comments and that the matter would be “dealt with internally.” Yep, the dreaded HR-speak for time to brush up the ol’ resume.

At least Toole did offer some sage advice to help others avoid similar blunders. “Don’t mix beer and typing,” he said. Thanks, Jeff. Here’s some more. Don’t write, post, tweet, or text anything that you don’t want the world to know.

In today’s world, news — and even non-news — travels fast.

This post was first published on "Running Commentary," Trent Thurman's blog.


The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily The University of Texas at Austin.

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About The Author

Trent Thurman

Director, Texas Evening MBA Program, McCombs School of Business, The University of Texas at Austin

Trent Thurman is director of the Texas Evening MBA program at the University of Texas at Austin. Established in 2000 to meet the growing educational...


#1 I remember when the advise

I remember when the advise was, "Think before you speak. Even the walls have ears." Well , the advice is still good; though it's nature has changed.

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