Noah J Nelson on Thursday, Mar. 13th
Late last night a rather moving conversation broke out on Twitter thanks to user @steenfox who prompted sexual assault survivors to tweet about what they were wearing at the time of their assault, in order to address the fallacious notion that provocative dress leads to rape.
The conversation, as they say, went viral; when something goes viral Buzzfeed is there to take advantage. Enter reporter Jessica Testa, who collected many of the tweets to draw more attention to the conversation. Those who shared their stories were understandably shocked to find their names and images plastered over the Internet’s leading source of corgi pictures, generating ad revenue in the process.
Gawker emerged as the voice of gentle reason (there’s a phrase never written before by humankind) reminding everyone that Twitter is, indeed, a public forum. Even if it sometimes doesn’t feel like one.
This is the Internet equivalent of a car crash.
There’s a deep level of naïveté coming from both @steenfox (who is listing her user name as Adele Dazeem, a reference to John Travolta’s Oscar flub, otherwise we’d use her proper name) and Testa. @steenfox can be seen resisting the blunt fact that Twitter is a public forum by referring to the Gawker piece as “Trash.” The computer code doesn’t change just because you don’t like what it does: making a statement on Twitter is no different from standing up in your local Starbucks and speaking your mind. Somebody may share what you say, striped of context, with the “wrong person.”
If you attach your real name to something that you post anywhere on the Internet you have to assume that someone may spread what you say. This can undermine the message that you are trying to convey, but there is no way around this. Part of the burden on every act of communication online lays with the person making the statement.
People can and do get fired over what they say on message boards far more obscure than Twitter. Sometimes it is even really good people that this happens to. This is never going to change because there is always going to be someone, somewhere, who is playing the role of a total jerk on any given day.
Testa’s fault is on display in the assumption that it was ever a good idea to paste the sensitive conversation up on the Buzzfeed front page in the first place. Some things you don’t do even when you are within your rights to do so. Stripping out a conversation like this from its context distorts the core truth being revealed. This discussion wasn’t newsworthy in the strictest sense and had little business being treated as such. Testa’s actions are a symptom of the larger disease that has infected media as a whole: the confusing of the “new” with the “news.”
The worst part? Testa’s intentions were likely pure. She cared enough to–rightly–think this dialogue was an important one. One that deserved to be shared. The mistake was in how it was shared.
Part of the problem lay with the lack of media literacy in our media saturated world. There are only two ways around Twitter’s status as a public forum: don’t use it or lock down your account entirely so that only those that you approve of may read your updates. It is easy to confuse the public nature of Twitter with the private act of texting. The actions are similar, and people can get lulled into a sense of complacency.
This isn’t to say that people are too stupid to know what Twitter really is. We can intellectually understand the implications of a world-wide person-to-person public broadcasting system, but until your personal business is actually read by millions there’s no real way to emotionally understand that. Human beings just aren’t wired for that, and the erratic behavior of celebrities is a constant reminder of this. We all know that it is a public forum, but the feeling that it is semi-private is a subjective illusion. Like the aforementioned jerks, this won’t change.
Some will likely shun Twitter after this.
That’s unfortunate, because the public nature of Twitter is where its power comes from. Social media is an engine for action and empathy, which distort in the funhouse mirror of mass media. As a Twitter user I’ve long lamented that it is nigh impossible to establish a temporary autonomous zone on the service. I no longer let my hair down on Twitter the way I once did. If I could grab a handful of my favorite followers and have a private room chat with them without leaving Twitter I’d be ecstatic.
If I found that plastered on the Daily Dot the next morning I’d freak out.
We can likely rule out Buzzfeed changing its stripes on this one. They chase page views, which is the radioactive waste of 21st century journalism. The transformation of the 24-hour-news cycle into the 60 second news cycle has laid low the chances of having a little wisdom sneak into editorial perspectives.
Twitter could provide some relief in the future: allowing users to disable the embedding of Tweets either wholesale or in part. That wouldn’t stop someone from quoting the text, but it would at least form a cue as to the intentions of a Tweet’s author. At this point I doubt that my early dream of a temporary autonomous zone on Twitter will never happen for the simple reason that remembering which conversations are public and which are semi-private would lead to too many mistakes.
Yet real relief won’t come from a technical solve. It will come from a change in our culture. As hard as it may be to stomach I think that incidents like these are part of that positive process: we’re all getting exposed to each other’s tragedies and triumphs on a daily basis. Hopefully we’re also learning to see each other as fully realized people with hopes, dreams, and agency in a very messed up world. Perhaps we’re not wired to be able to extend our empathy this far, but I have to hope that we can at least develop the cultural framework to act like we are.
That’s a process that will could help put an end to the laissez-faire attitude that the collective unconsciousness has towards sexual assault.
Communication is a two way street, and both the content and the form of this conversation are something that we collectively need to talk about. Now that it is out in the open, I hope we don’t turn away from either task.
(Note: I refrained from linking to Testa’s piece because, if you can’t read between the lines, I don’t think it should exist. If you really want to see the conversation, pick through @steenfox’s Twitter feed.)