The Ever-Present Eye

On the Fourth of July, America’s official birthday, rs_560x415-150709153531-560-sam-cat-ariana-grande-doughnut-donutanother birth of sorts was happening; the birth of a viral controversy. It was on this day that diminutive Pop Princess Ariana Grande entered the Wolfee Donut Shop in Lake Elsinor, CA, ordered six donuts and, with her boyfriend, licked a few on the counter for fun. It didn’t end there, for when one of the shop’s employees brought out a new tray of goodies, Grande cursed and proclaimed she “hates Americans” for their disgusting dietary habits.

Social media naturally exploded a few days later once the shop’s security video found its way to TMZ. Twitter buzzed, Instagram went into overdrive and the mainstream media kept the story alive. Even the local police got involved. Grande issued a video apology – of course – on July 9 and social media responded once again, with her fans grabbing the Twitter hashtag #WeForgiveYouAriana.

Grande’s video shame, regret and advocacy for the end of American obesity aside, the episode is a potent reminder of where life is lived today: under the ever-present eye of a camera or, in the recent period of comprehensive NSA surveillance, across the monitored lines of voice, text and email communication. We are never truly alone anymore.

The swift nature of DonutGate (#donutgate) is surprising and, honestly, expected. We all live under an ever-present eye where our actions, words and beliefs can be broadcast instantly to people we will never meet. Even those of us who do not live in the public eye must assume that snippets of what we say or do in an unguarded moment will have a digital shelf-life longer than a nuclear bomb.

We’ve lived with this increasing level of social surveillance for close to a decade now but the implications on the career and reputation of non-celebrities are only now becoming evident. I grew up in a time when one could indulge in youthful missteps without record. If someone took an embarrassing photo at a party all you needed to do was get your hands on the negative to stop the damage. Not anymore. Today’s teens in particular must contend with having their every youthful indiscretion “watched” by college admissions officers, future employers and potential partners. It’s as if the luxury of the unguarded moment is a thing of history.

What can you do, even if you’re a mere working professional and not a pop princess?

Quite simply, deal with it. As a lawyer once said to me, “If you don’t want something to appear on the front page of the New York Times, don’t do, write or say anything you wouldn’t want the public to see.” Really, what we’re talking about here is acting with awareness, maturity and compassion. I believe the ever-present eye can forgive a genuine misstep. What it can’t forgive is arrogance, stupidity or two-facedness. Grande’s case shows that swift controversy requires swift reply. Not everyone believes her sincerity yet she has responded quickly and completely, acknowledging her behavior and its impact. She is trying to regain reputational cred and, as they say, control the narrative.

For the rest of us, there are lessons here. First come the cautions, as captured by Philip Cohen in

1) Avoid inappropriate photos.

2) Be smart before trying to be relevant.

3) Remember that words live forever.

4) Don’t mix up personal and professional social media accounts.

Second is what to do after the “stuff” has hit the fan:

1) Don’t hide. Hiding can come across as arrogant and uncaring.

2) Respond transparently and be authentic.

3) Remove what is offensive, if possible.

4) And, going forward, don’t mess up. Seriously, don’t mess up again.

Reputations have always demanded careful building and protection. We can mourn the loss of anonymous moments and the freedom they provide. Or we can use the reality of the ever-present eye to positively curate our reputations. Avoiding public donut licking is a good place to start.



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