The Public Space of Twitter

I’ve been on Twitter for about a year and a half, and I never blocked anyone but spammers until this week, when I did it twice. It made me think about what it means to be “in public” on Twitter. Sometimes I forget just how public things I say on social media are; reminders that people you don’t think are “there” can see what you’re saying can be unpleasant but salutary. On the other hand, I don’t think being on social media should feel like walking naked down the street. Even “in public,” people deserve a modicum of privacy that others respect. Here’s what happened that made me feel my “public privacy” had been invaded:

Someone who followed none of us responded to an hours-old conversation some friends and I were involved in, aggressively challenging what one of them said and demanding “evidence” for her statement. It’s not clear how the conversation came to his notice (he may have been searching a Bible-related term that came up). He would not disengage even when it was clear we didn’t want to discuss it with him, and he felt his behavior was perfectly justified because our conversation was “public.”

Well, yeah, the way a conversation I have with friends on a sidewalk is public. I generally don’t welcome complete strangers who barge into those to attack me, either. This dude was somewhere between tin-foil hat guy who harangues you about aliens at the bus stop and the kind of harasser who says, “Hey, pretty lady, how about a smile? What, you can’t smile for me? Bitch.” We owed him a response, because we dared to be in public. Uh, no. Obviously there are polite ways to meet and engage strangers in public spaces, virtual or real; that’s part of what they are for (this is one of the subjects in my writing classes, actually). His way is not one of them.

My second block was of someone who is loosely associated with a certain site dedicated to nastiness towards reviewers and others who offend their sensibilities. I’ve observed this guy trolling on various forums as well. I am quite sure he followed me because I interact on Twitter with some people targeted by That Site, and that his reason for doing so was to stir up trouble or look for “evidence” of my bullying/bully-minion ways that he could report on somewhere. That’s clearly his modus operandi elsewhere. Not interested.

There’s no doubt that right now a lot of people in Romancelandia and YA blogging worry that Big Bully is always looking over their shoulders. I do. This is another bad, bad use of the “public” nature of Twitter. Being in public should not mean being under constant surveillance and giving up any expectation of personal privacy, though increasingly it does. How often, when we’re in public places, are we under video surveillance, whether by private or government entities? I don’t agree that “it doesn’t matter if you have nothing to hide.” Being in public does not have to mean giving up all expectation that my actions and words are unobserved and unrecorded.

I don’t want to live in a Soviet-bloc style online state where the secret police are watching me. As far as I’m concerned, the kind of people who will troll others’ Twitter streams looking for “wrong-doing” or reasons to be outraged are aligning themselves with the secret police and their collaborators. Oh sure, I’m over-dramatizing, but it’s at the bottom of the same spectrum topped by the Stasi. Keeping tabs on others in this way is not just “high-schoolish.” It’s wrong. There’s no better way to kill a lively public sphere, and I don’t want that to happen in Romancelandia, a public sphere I’m very fond of. I don’t think it will, because a few bad apples don’t have the power of the Stasi. But we do have to keep resisting it.

If you’re reading this, you probably don’t need to be told these things. But I just had to get them off my chest. And if you happen to be trolling for “evidence” here, enjoy!

I feel like I blew a semester’s worth of substantive posts in the last couple of weeks and I’ve only got stuff like this left. This observation led to the following conversation with my husband:

Him: You’re writing another post? You should bank some so you don’t burn out.

Me: But if I think of something that interests me, I just have to get it out there and talk about it! I can’t wait.

Him: It’s an illness.

Me (interrupting): It’s just like how I’m always interrupting people in conversations because I get too excited to wait my turn. [It’s a terrible habit, and I can’t always stop myself even when I realize I’m doing it.]

Him (laughing): Yep.

He knows me too well.

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9 Responses to The Public Space of Twitter

  1. kaetrin says:

    Where do these people find the time? I can barely keep up with my own Twitter stream (a lot of the conversations happen when I’m sleeping given the different locations of [what my son refers to as} my TweetPals and I just don’t have time to read them all anyway. When I’m busier at work, I will struggle to find even that.

    As for joining conversations, it’s one of the reasons I love Twitter – because I can, because I’m allowed to – and one of the reasons I sometimes get stressed about it – because I have a horror of being the uninvited/unwelcome visitor. Fortunately, almost everyone I’ve tweeted has been very gracious.

  2. mezzak says:

    I don’t think you are over-dramatising. They are seeking control of the expression of thoughts and ideas, of our inner worlds as well as how we engage with other people and express our ideas in the real world. Social media such as Twitter is part of our real world now and we all need strategies for managing not just ourselves but our safety as we do anywhere else. As a public space sadly it does mean dealing with creeping, entitled menfolk and crazy ladies. It also means that we have to more aggressively patrol our own personal boundaries of what is acceptable interaction and what feels safe. I think one thing that is emerging is that ‘don’t feed the trolls’ is only a first step action. If ignoring them doesn’t make them go away but seems to ramp up their anxiety and their aggressive behaviours in response to that anxious state, then blocking is a fair response.

    I think it was Foz Meadows who commented in a post that the Internet is around 20 years old and that means we are still storming and norming behaviour protocols. I see your experiences and response in the light of that but also in continuum with the issues that have arisen out of readercon and general sexism and douchebaggery in geekdom and rape culture.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Well, public space is millennia old, and people still argue about how to use it and if/how to control what goes on there, so I don’t think we will solve this anytime soon!

  3. “he felt his behavior was perfectly justified because our conversation was “public.””

    Yes and no. I know it’s crazy and frustrating, but an online conversation isn’t same as holding a conversation on a public street. Almost completely incomparable, in fact.

    When on a public sidewalk, people use discussion contributors’ body language and volume of their voices to determine whether it’s OK to join or not. Most times, discussions are made with low voices with their bodies as a loose cluster, leaving no room for the others to join.

    Whereas with online, starting and engaging in an online discussion on a public platform – such as Twitter – is an implied consent for all or any to take part in said discussion.

    His *behaviour* – as in trolling or being aggressive – wasn’t and never will be justified, but the fact he exercised his “right” to make a contribution to an online public discussion was unfortunately justified. Rude of him to barge in and idiotic of him to being such an arse about it, but for as long as the online conversation is public, it’s fair game.

    In Usenet days, when a person complained about whoever butted in a discussion between the person and someone else, regulars and all who were fierce protectors of the Internet’s “jungle law” would say “Take your discussion to email then!” This is true. Want to keep it private in terms of restricting to like-minded and polite people only? Take it to email or a closed online arena.

    The idea behind that principle, in theory, is that no one should ever feel like an intruder when butting in an ongoing conversation. In other words: all public conversations online are open to all, and always. That’s the core principle of the Internet. Or rather, of any online community. This does mean we have to learn to develop tactics to create boundaries – to keep out trolls or similar – without violating the principle. Tactics range from blocking intruders’ usernames to ignoring the intruding contribution altogether; and from stonewalling to ripping the intruder apart. In other words, don’t feed trolls. No matter how much the troll harasses, don’t ever respond. Block his username. Report him to a mod. Etc.

    People who abuse the general online public’s trust not to gatecrash a sincere discussion – for lolz and all – are dickheads. No doubt about it. I hated most of them. Still do. But they are part of the Internet’s jungle. That’s the way it is.

    What does allow the original contributors of a conversation to make one feel like an intruder is when his or her contribution is clearly designed to derail or disrupt the natural flow of this conversation – e.g. trolling – *or* when the conversation is at least 12 hours old. If it’s a day old, then no original contributors should ever feel obliged to respond to the latest contribution, friendly or not.

    “There’s no doubt that right now a lot of people in Romancelandia and YA blogging worry that Big Bully is always looking over their shoulders. I do. This is another bad, bad use of the “public” nature of Twitter. Being in public should not mean being under constant surveillance and giving up any expectation of personal privacy, though increasingly it does.”

    I’m scratching my head over that. Being in public – or rather, being online in public – DOES mean being under constant surveillance. One should always try to adhere one’s online behaviour and mindset to that understanding.

    There’s no such thing as personal privacy in our public online life. Impossible, I should think. That can only happen in closed arenas, such as email, membership-only groups and password-locked groups. But even there, it’s a matter of trust among closed users not to bring the details from that closed arena out into the open.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks, Maili. Great points. The sidewalk analogy is probably not a good one, and you’re right that I have more expectation of interacting with strangers on Twitter, say, than on the street. I do think that someplace like Twitter has its own etiquette/”body” language about how to enter conversations (are you following at least one of the people involved? Is it a general broadcast tweet or an @reply? Not saying it’s not OK to respond in the latter case, but it is not as much an open invitation to any kind of joining in the conversation from people who are not following either of you). And I don’t think there is ever any obligation to respond, or any excuse for being a troll, of course.

      As for the second point, I would make a distinction between being visible and being “under surveillance,” and I think it is more than semantic. I sometimes forget I am visible on the net, and that’s embarrassing (kind of like when you catch someone in the next car picking their nose at a stoplight). But that is different from feeling that someone is watching you all the time to see if you are stepping out of line, and the expectation that something unpleasant may happen to you if someone feels you have transgressed. That feeling is chilling to speech in both real and virtual public spheres, and it is chilling whether it is government or private citizens doing it. There’s a huge philosophical debate here, of course–for instance, should police videotape peaceful demonstrations as a matter of routine? I see certain kinds of Internet behavior as parallel to that, and to me both are somewhat problematic.

  4. I suffer from the exact same interruption compulsion. In my family, and among the friends I grew up with, conversation was a Darwinian struggle of competing enthusiasms – everyone battling to be heard, but also understand that if you were interrupted it was a sign that the interrupter was engaged with your conversation. It makes D crazy: I’ve spent years biting back interrupting comments (which feels like subduing my enthusiasm to me) and trying to persuade him that when I interrupt, it isn’t because I don’t care about what he is saying, but because I care so much that I can’t hold my response back for another second. It’s a serious culture clash.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I can’t even tell you how much better this makes me feel.

      Our family’s favorite knock-knock joke:

      Knock knock.
      Who’s there?
      Interrupting cow.
      Interrupting co–

      And yes, I have been referred to, lovingly, as “interrupting cow.”

      • willaful says:

        That used to be my favorite joke, but my son improved on it:
        Knock knock.
        Who’s there?
        Interrupting nobody.
        Interrupting nobody who?

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