Less than a week ago, the US Supreme Court handed down their long-awaited decision to enact marriage equality in all of its 50 states, catalysing celebrations around the world. With a click, Facebook encouraged people to instantly ‘rainbow’ their profile pictures and show their support of the decision. Social media facilitated flows of emotional expression, with stories of happiness and triumph flooding newsfeeds.
At the same time, other people opposed to the decision took to platforms like Twitter to voice their somewhat less upbeat feelings. Social media news site Buzzfeed was quick to document some of these expressions of disappointment in an article entitled ‘People who are going to be very disappointed when they get to Canada’, extracting a number of tweets from Twitter users who ostensibly chose to announce their incipient move to the US’ neighbouring country as a result of the decision. Some of the tweets were as simple as ‘I’m moving to Canada’, others more explicitly referred to the decision by stating the ‘country was corrupt’ and ‘this country is going to hell’.
The article is punchy and very funny, as are many on Buzzfeed, a site which prides itself on producing viral content. It identifies the user by their Twitter handle, with their tweet, before triumphantly announcing that Canada, indeed, legalised gay marriage a decade ago. It finishes by enjoining these users to “ENJOY!!!” Canada, featuring a rainbowed Canadian flag.
But my point is not really to do with the users’ mistaken assumption that Canada was a space immune to political change. I’m interested in the politics of naming the users’ Twitter handles and thus identifying them in a widely read public piece. Writing this now, the Buzzfeed article has racked up over 3.5 million views. Checking the Twitter accounts which were named in that piece, all have now been targeted by multitudes of users mocking the homophobic and starkly ignorant views recounted. Publicising the tweets with their authors’ Twitter handles has definitely had results.
However, reading the article and seeing how these users were identified made me ponder the murky ethics of internet ‘publicness’. First, I want to discuss the question of ‘it’s all public, isn’t it? Shouldn’t users have known that their thoughts could have been read by just about anybody?’
I think the answer to this is yes and no.
Twitter, like many other social platforms, is an ambiguously private public space. Technically, anything tweeted may be accessible by an Internet user browsing Twitter. However, ethnographic work on digital media shows that notions of privacy change and are contextually dependent. Often, in digital spaces, where users are vaguely aware that their data is being mined and they do not have any real power in negotiating user agreements, users shelter in a sense of public anonymity. That is, there are so many users of social media out there that no one would think to personally examine their profile / Twitter account and so on.
Scholars have argued that users also navigate certain contextual rules which may not be explicit but are still present in digital interaction. So, for example, on Facebook, I might share a picture of myself on holiday for a potential audience of hundreds of Facebook ‘friends’. In a way, this is a public picture, given Facebook allows friends to download and share others’ pictures. However, one might say at the same time that there are norms about use of others’ pictures, particularly those in which they feature. For example, I would not expect a distant acquaintance from my school days to download my holiday snap for use in a different context, say, an ad for a business, without being asked about it first. While perhaps I don’t mind that people I no longer keep in contact with can view the picture, I might not necessarily want the picture to be in free circulation on the Internet.
Twitter might be considered a more public space than Facebook given that one can follow a Twitter account usually without needing approval or reciprocal following, unlike Facebook. However, most of the time, users are arguably accustomed to a certain amount of known attention. Often, users may not get very much feedback from unknown others unless they are already well known public figures. Therefore, based on what users generally experience, users may judge tweets to be fairly, but not totally, private. I don’t think that this is unreasonable.
So, when Buzzfeed takes people’s tweets and publicises their Twitter handle on their site, this removes a tweet and puts it in a very different context. In a way, it breaks with how people imagine norms of privacy, even if it is a publicly accessible space like Twitter and even though it may be completely legal to extract those tweets. For an ordinary, non-famous person, the movement of a tweet on Twitter to Buzzfeed amps up the publicness of that tweet and the person who has tweeted it. It makes that person more trackable – all I have to do is copy their handle and search it in Twitter, and I am instantly able to tweet at them. This, evidently, has taken place – the feedback from other Twitter users is easily viewable on the accounts of the users featured in the Buzzfeed article.
Obviously, while Buzzfeed might be argued to be a generally progressive news platform, it, too, needs to make money and it does so by compiling lists of funny Internet things. Indeed, it is a very successful social media company, with some reports valuing it at USD 850million. According to Buzzfeed Australia editor Simon Crerar, speaking at PauseFest in February 2015, the company has expanded from 200 to 800 employees over the period of about a year and a half. But here, this particular ‘listicle’ is not just about being funny; it also creates consequences for what real people may experience as a result of a tweet making the Internet funny list. Like the suddenly famous Star Wars kid, or the kid who spoke out about injustice towards ‘gingers’ on YouTube, this is a question which affects people across social platforms.
Now to the ‘I don’t really feel empathy for these people because they are homophobic’ question. In some ways, it could be said that these tweeters are receiving useful community feedback on their views, which have long contributed to the oppression of many Americans and others around the globe. And some of this feedback has been constructive. But while it may be tempting to call ‘just desserts’ on this one, consider that it is not such an easy judgment call to make when having regard to the broader context of e-bile, hate, trolling, cyberbullying and so on in relation to any views that might be unpopular. Notably, feminists like Anita Sarkeesian and Clementine Ford, have been massive targets of unacceptable abuse, en masse on social media. Indeed, as a woman who sometimes tweets about sexism and misogyny amongst other things, I might have legitimate misgivings about tweets on that subject being made more public. I am not sure that I would want one of my tweets to my small number of followers to be published identifiably on a bigger platform because of the pervasive risk of hate messages, threats and so on facilitated by social media’s ability to connect people.
I also want to note that here, in at least one case, Buzzfeed might have gotten it wrong relating to one user’s tweet that was included in the list. In the US, ‘I’m moving to Canada’ is an expression which is not uncommon to use. One of the tweeters profiled by Buzzfeed, Madeline, tweeted ‘oh fuck no, I’m moving to Canada’ on the day of the decision. This tweet was featured, and unusually, so was her profile picture – other users’ profile pictures were not included in the article. She received sharp criticism and harassment consequently. Some comments were fairly gentle and humorous, others much more violent.
However, Madeline strongly refuted any link her tweet had to the legalisation decision, tweeting repeatedly afterwards that her Canada tweet had nothing to do with gay marriage. She argued that unlike the other users whose tweets were featured, the reason that she had not deleted her original tweet was precisely because it was not about this issue. She was also supported by a number of other Twitter users, presumably friends, who asked Twitter users to look at the history of what she had been tweeting about – boy troubles. Madeline also tweeted sarcastically later:
The decontextualisation and recontextualisation which takes place on the Internet is often so commonplace that we take it for granted. Miscellaneous things are often copied and pasted without context, and disseminated with ease, because that is, well, what the Internet does. Evidently, with Madeline’s case, people did not attempt to contextualise her featured tweet.
However, these practices raise a lot of questions about publicness versus privacy. Hurtful and homophobic comments should be condemned. At the same time, perhaps there are no ready answers about how to do this and respectfully and usefully navigate these murky boundaries in widely varying contexts. But maybe companies turning a monetary benefit from these open channels of shareability might want to seriously engage with these problems as they are certainly not going away.