In the cacophony of Egypt-related commentary on Twitter, a couple of incidents illustrate the pitfalls of communicating publicly on social networks.
On January 29th, while the entire world was watching the historic events in Egypt, this Twitter exchange took place:
WH Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer (official account): @dcfooter on the road is tough, but Nova is very beatable
Pfeiffer: Tough game on the road, but Nova is very beatable if the guards shoot well RT@pfeiffer44 gtown-nova. What’s your confidence level?
Nic Lott: @pfeiffer44 How about more tweets on issues of the nation and world since this is a WH twitter account. Turmoil in Middle East. Not sports.
Pfeiffer: @niclott fair point. We are carefully monitoring. Pls see this video of POTUS talking about egypt last night http://bit.ly/ecz1Xo 9:25 AM Jan 29th via web in reply to niclott
After reading the back and forth, I gave credit to Pfeiffer for responding in real time and quickly pivoting to Egypt.
Similarly, on the White House Twitter account (@WhiteHouse), three wildly incongruous tweets appeared on February 2 as Egypt exploded:
Gibbs: “US deplores and condemns the violence that is taking place in Egypt… repeat our strong call for restraint” http://wh.gov/cJu 12:15 PM Feb 2nd via web
Congrats to the winners of Cabinet meeting jeopardy: @LauraKMM @gravitas28 @Only4RM @Diament_OU, others we missed 12:13 PM Feb 2nd via web
Photo of the Day contest: Name 4 Cabinet members pictured here. Bonus for 5. Prize: not much. (credit: @petesouza) http://twitpic.com/3vsscd 11:28 AM Feb 2nd via Twitpic
Far from politics, Kenneth Cole waded into a firestorm with a tweet that made light of the events in Egypt. Cole posted this apology on Facebook:
I apologize to everyone who was offended by my insensitive tweet about the situation in Egypt. I’ve dedicated my life to raising awareness about serious social issues, and in hindsight my attempt at humor regarding a nation liberating themselves against oppression was poorly timed and absolutely inappropriate.
Kenneth Cole, Chairman and Chief Creative Officer
I asked fellow Twitter users how they felt about the fluffy White House tweets. Some said it was meaningless and critics should lighten up, others disagreed:
jentwats it’s disgusting
eclexia Utter callous stupidity
jbuford Light-hearted tweets coming from the WH are jarring and incongruous
This raises a much larger question – one of the most profound and intractable problems we face as humans, namely, how to balance pleasure with sensitivity to others’ pain, how to enjoy life in the midst of unfathomable sadness. There is no easy answer. It’s the perennial problem of how much to give of ourselves and how often. Should we plunk down $100 on a nice meal when kids are starving around the world? How about having a $20 meal and donating the rest to feed several families? Should we laugh and joke and smile at the exact moment that little girls are being raped with broken bottles? Is it fair? Is it right?
Our general impulse is to say that it’s a matter of degree, that there is infinite anguish on this planet and we can’t survive if we internalize all of it, nor can we spend all our time suffering over the suffering of others. If we sacrifice and help to a reasonable extent it’s the most we can do. Perhaps. Perhaps not.
As I said, there’s no answer. We each find our own equilibrium. Some do nothing, some dedicate their entire lives to the cause of helping others in need.
In the end, at the very least, we should appreciate the pain that’s all around us. Even if we don’t devote every waking moment to alleviating it, let’s not exacerbate it by turning a blind eye.