On February 9, Ethan Czahor was sitting pretty as the chief technology officer for Right to Rise, Jeb Bush's political action committee. The next day, the 31-year-old watched his ambitions come crashing down. Reporters discovered old tweets in which he referred to women as "sluts" and lamented the fact that Lindsay Lohan would likely die before he had the chance to sleep with her.
Shortly after, the Huffington Post found a blog post Czahor had written in college that commended Martin Luther King Jr. for not wearing "pants sagged to his ankles." It proved to be the fatal blow. Just days after landing the cushy Right to Rise gig, Czahor resigned.
"Best of luck to everyone there, and I apologize in advance to whoever fills my position," he tweeted at the time.
Now, Czahor is attempting to spin the fiasco into gold with a new app called Clear. Feeding off the uncomfortable truth that the Internet is forever, the app mines a user's social media platforms for character-damaging things he or she may have said in the past. It targets posts on sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, pulling out curse words and slurs as well as references to specific ethnic or racial groups.
Using a combination of custom algorithms and help from Watson, IBM's supercomputer and Jeopardy! champion, Clear tracks its users' Internet-based stupidity and assigns them a numerical score based on how safe their online personas are.
Czahor thinks he's hit on a solution to a common fear.
"I received a lot of mail from people who have been using social media for years and are scared that a similar situation [to mine] could happen to them," he told Mic in an email. "So it appears to be a real problem."
There isn't a soul among us who's never said a dumb thing in public. An offensive comment made in person leaves few traces, but a tweet is preserved for all to see.
No one wants to be the next Justine Sacco, whose infamous tweet about AIDS in Africa ignited a maelstrom of controversy and got her harassed and fired, or Liz Mair, the former aide to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker who resigned after drawing ire from a series of critical tweets she posted about Iowa.
"You're one tweet away from ending your career," or so the adage goes — why not get to it before it becomes a serious liability?
Because it negates the idea of accountability. Critics of the app claim it gives users a free pass for saying deeply hurtful and offensive things.
But Czahor has argued that the app is all about misunderstood context; it's simply meant to protect users from their more benign missteps. "As a teen or college student, you may not have had an accurate definition of what 'dumb' is, while as a 35-year-old, you do," he explained to Mic.
Everybody makes mistakes, true. But critics of Clear argue that those who have made other, less innocent fumbles will get an easy way out. The app might save them from actually having to alter their behavior.
Nonetheless, online witch hunts are problematic: Jon Ronson, who chronicled the Justine Sacco tweet debacle in a February piece for the New York Times, described the Internet's collective glee at the screw-ups of others as "a form of idle entertainment," born out of older forms of public humiliation like whippings. "Social media is ... perfectly designed to manipulate our desire for approval," he concluded.
This does nobody any good. Fortunately, if you're worried about becoming the next Justine Sacco or Ethan Czahor, there's a simple fix: Don't say awful things on the Internet.