The perils of a compliment on social media

Many of us are in LinkedIn, the Internet-based social network for professionals. But there’s a lesson somewhere in the Twitter storm that lit cyberspace earlier this month in what might have been an “innocuous” compliment.

Many of us are in LinkedIn, the Internet-based social network for professionals. But there’s a lesson somewhere in the Twitter storm that lit cyberspace earlier this month in what might have been an “innocuous” compliment.

Charlotte Proudman, a 27 year-old barrister (high court lawyer) in the Britain, asked to “connect” with Alexander Carter-Silk, 57, on the social network.

Carter-Silk, a solicitor, in his reply, said: “I appreciate that this is probably horrendously politically incorrect but that is a stunning picture.”

He added: “You definitely win the prize for the best LinkedIn picture I have ever seen.”

Proudman’s reaction was akin to being sexually fondled by a fellow passenger in a matatu (public taxi).

Livid and claiming sexism, she replied in a robust private message charging that his behaviour was “unacceptable and misogynistic”.

She told him to “think twice before sending another woman (half [his] age) such a sexist message.”

Proudman then posted a screenshot of her conversation with Carter-Silk on Twitter. His name was clearly identifiable.

This created quite a storm, in which Proudman received accolades and condemnation in equal measure.

Yet, if she had only received congratulations for calling out the “sexist”, the point would have been made and it probably would have quickly died out.

But it is the mockery and vitriol she received that generated the heat. Some saw her reaction as “thoughtlessly overcooked”.

And, as one lady journalist quipped in the Daily Mail, “Not only does it beggar belief that Ms Proudman could have inferred any slight from such an innocuous missive, [t]his alleged act of sexism happened in the ether. Even if it had been genuinely fruity, it was definitely harmless.”

As the saga unfolded in the feisty British media, it emerged that Proudman had previously told female friends they looked “sexy” and “stunning”.

On the profile of a postgraduate student at Cambridge, observed one article, where Miss Proudman is on sabbatical from her chambers to study for a PhD, she wrote: “Hot stuff!”, while under an image of a long-haired male friend, she wrote: “oooo lalala!”

On her part, stumping her feminism in The Independent, Proudman wrote: “Let me be clear: the compliments I receive from friends or family, and those I choose to give, are a private matter. I do not welcome unsolicited remarks about my body from someone I don’t know and who, in a professional context, is in a position of authority over me. Sexist comments are part of the process that seals and cements women’s subordinate position to men in the workplace.”

Sexism is a serious matter, and she made a valid and incontestable point.

But, despite the moral – if personal – outrage, by breaching privacy with the screenshot there was a suggestion it was unprofessional – no less from a website dedicated to professionals.

As one outspoken British tweep caustically pointed out, “@CRProudman its not for exposing sexism of which this is not even an example, its for publishing private stuff, how can you be trusted?”

This suggested her professional career was in peril.

LinkedIn, like most social websites, imitates life. It is the digital equivalent of job seeker’s forum whose mission is “to connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful.”

 It is a place similar to networking events and conferences where people go to know other professionals and more important people in their line of work. Only that you never know who you meet.

Which bring us back to Alexander Carter-Silk. In his defence, he explained that “my comment was aimed at the professional quality of [Proudman’s] presentation … which was unfortunately misinterpreted.”

Carter-Silk then promptly deleted his LinkedIn account.

But it reminds me how the website has occasionally been derided.

As one observer put it, like in life, LinkedIn can be frequently cruel where paradoxes multiply on up through the social food chain: those who are at the top of their field are at the networking forum only to entice attendees – and, if paid for their trouble – soak up the speaking fees, and slip out the back door after politely declining to stand around on garish hotel ballroom carpet with a plastic cup of cheap wine in one hand and a stack of business cards in the other.

And that’s my take.


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