Last week thousands of community managers, custodians of the social media presence of companies big and small, sat down to plan their content for Women’s Day 2015. The same thing happened around Christmas, Father’s Day, Secretary’s Day, Left Hander’s Day, flipping Star Wars Day and every other day in between.

This is what brands do in social media. They look to capitalise on cultural moments – the social zeitgeist – with a clever quip, tailored piece of content, or a sweet message aimed at “improving brand sentiment”.

That’s what the community manager behind Bic was trying to do when they planned, designed and posted the now infamous Women’s Day image on the brand’s Twitter account on Sunday evening.

It is plainly obvious that the message wasn’t very well thought out and that it was likely to draw attention of the worst kind on a day when a large portion of the population was already very critical of the seemingly opportunistic commercialisation of what should be an event driving awareness around the many abuses and indiscretions against women young and old in the past, and still today.

When the image was posted the account had an almost negligible 300 followers. The reaction to the image was immediate and severe, and in a very short period of time the tweet had gone global, and viral. It has since been covered by Mashable, CNN, The Guardian and more. In short, it has received tens of millions of dollars worth of media coverage.

If you’ll excuse the terrible pun, there was an astonishingly fine line(r) between Bic’s tweet never being noticed and what is now reality – being arguably one of the most pervasive and talked about global social media faux pas since Justine Sacco’s disastrous tweet. That very fine line has tectonic implications for the actual human beings involved.

Now, I’m not for one second arguing whether or not the tweet was sexist, offensive, inappropriate or not. It was. It was poorly thought out. That said, there were thousands of brands who said dumb things on Women’s Day and maybe hundreds that said things worse than this. In fact I know of one example of a brand with an exponentially larger social media audience that did something that could easily have had more severe implications, and somehow it went unnoticed. Ironically enough almost all of these clumsy, ignorant attempts came from relatively good intentions. What is that saying again? Something about a road and HELL.

And hell is exactly where Bic’s marketing and branding teams are right now. Hell is where their local brand manager is. Hell is where the agency is. I cannot imagine a worse outcome for an agency. Do they deserve it? The ridicule and shame? The expense? Do they deserve to lose their jobs, and have their careers jeopardised?

I don’t think they do.

You might, but I don’t. I think these are ordinary people like me who did a silly thing and who are paying very dearly for it. (Then again, if a relatively ‘innocent’ person never texts and drives, and then one day happens to glance down at their phone on the highway and subsequently wipes out a pedestrian, they’re as guilty of murder as a serial killer is, right?)

I still empathise with the people behind the Bic disaster though. I empathise because I know that I’ve been doing the same work for nine years and over 200 brands, and I know I’ve done some dumb things. I know my team has done some dumb things. I know I sent an entire proposal for a project valued at R4 million to a client, but for some insane reason I wrote, in every instance of their name in the 32-page proposal, the name of their biggest competitor. Dumb. DUMB.

I got off scot-free though. I got off because I didn’t publish it online. The difference between standing up in front of a group of people and making a racist comment, and having someone video that incident and publish it online, is monumental. A published indiscretion has exponentially more power to destroy its creator than the billions of indiscretions that go unnoticed or unpunished by randoms every day. Had Justine Sacco joked about her trip to Africa to the person next to her on the plane, the absolute worst case scenario for her was a punch to the face and a seat change. But putting it on Twitter ruined her life.

The public shaming and lynching of people and companies who do and say idiotic things online is fun. I do it. I’ve done it. It’s only when it’s us or someone we love that is the target of the ridicule that it becomes somewhat less entertaining. It’s easy to tell your bank or ISP or car brand to f*ck off and die on Twitter. It’s somewhat tougher to tell that to the ambitious, idealistic and impressionable 26-year old youngster sitting behind the laptop at the time to do the same, especially to their face.

Nobody really wants to be friends with brands online. They want to transact with brands. They want to be friends with people. It’s only on the very rare occasion that brands break that barrier but it comes with ridiculously high levels of effort and engagement. We’re only too happy to destroy brands online because, well, we don’t have to think about the human beings behind them. If you knew for example that ten people (ironically many of them women) would lose their jobs as a direct result of Bic’s blunder – not the incident itself, but rather the public nature of the shaming of it – would you have acted differently? Would it have made you think twice? Does the punishment really fit the crime? What if the magnitude of the indiscretion sparked a suicide attempt? Still fun?

I don’t think we’ve quite yet understood the astonishing power – good and bad – that being published on the Internet really holds for ordinary people. I don’t think we fully appreciate the potential butterfly effect of our published opinions. I don’t think we always consider the blurred lines between the brands we love and hate, and the real human beings behind them. I think we owe it to ourselves as an intelligent and critical audience to be conscious and deliberate about what we do and say online. I would want to suggest asking the following questions before you publish anything online, but more particularly, when you publish criticism online:

  1. If I knew this piece of content was going to be posted up on a billboard on the front of my employer’s headquarters, or on the front page of a daily newspaper, with my name and profile picture on it, would I still post it?
  2. If this criticism and the subsequent implications of it were levelled at me, or my family, or my friends, or at the company or companies that they represent, would I feel the same way about it?
  3. If I knew that this piece of content had a material, negative impact on some other person’s wellbeing, even if that person was fully or partly to blame for the indiscretion, would I still publish it?

Jim Jefferies, the Australian comedian, recently had a skit about gun control go viral. In it he jokes, but with startling truth, that the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms) made more sense when both the government and the people had muskets as their primary weaponry. He says the advantage of a musket is that it gives you time to think about whether or not you want to shoot the person you intend to shoot (ha ha). Similarly, freedom of speech means one thing when you are writing down your thoughts on a pen and paper, sleeping on it, and mailing it to someone the next day. But social media as obliterated any barrier to publishing, and with it, often the necessary thought and deliberation required to form a compelling argument.

The pen is mightier than the sword, and the internet sure as hell is mightier than the pen. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of responsibility for what you say.