Dorothy Kim

Twitter is an incredibly dynamic digital tool that can create spaces of flattened hierarchies. These spaces can fuel inclusive pedagogy. But before teaching with Twitter, instructors have to think about how to use it together with students. What are the rules — particularly in relation to ethics?

Twitter as a Digital Mediated Public Space

Several recent posts have considered participatory culture and the potential demise of social media. In “Something is Rotten,” Bonnie Stewart writes, “they’re multiplying, these narratives, just like the fruit flies in my kitchen.” Academics and tech programmers have imagined Twitter has changed from the porch to their homes to now becoming Broadway the street. And in so doing, people like Alan Jacobs have declared the demise of the social media microblogging platform. This is not new. The spatial frames discussed by the four white men cited in Jacobs’ piece (academics, writers, and tech programmers) are of a certain brand of tech culture — male, white, upper-middle class. So when lamenting Twitter’s end, they believe it is the end of conversations “on the porch” where they can “have a nice chat with friends and neighbors.” But the porch is located in a white, single-family home clearly either in the suburbs or further afield, but not in an urban (racially mixed) public space.

The lament is that now Twitter feels as if they’ve walked onto Broadway. Suey Park and David Leonard in “In Defense of Twitter Feminism” explain the white fear about Twitter, “By not being a segregated space, Twitter is marked as an unsafe space for the white middle-class user who has to share a platform with people of color, especially when whiteness and privilege are made visible.” In other words, porch in the suburbs = white, upper-middle class life, while Broadway in the middle of urban public space = multiracial, multiclass mass.

The relocation of Twitter — from the bucolic image of conversations with neighbors in the “American Dream” single-family neighborhood to loud Broadway (clearly envisioning New York City) — is a statement about digital white flight. However, the neighborhood in the eyes of these white male pundits was always imagined as safe, suburban — by default — white, and upper-middle class. Basically, these pundits are blind to their own white privilege in discussing a digital space. And this is the issue: Twitter was never a porch, it has always been a mediated public space, a hacked public space.

Mediated Public Space

By understanding how Twitter is a mediated public space, students and teachers will understand the rules and etiquette this space demands. What is a mediated public space? Eunsong Kim and I discussed this briefly in “#TwitterEthics Manifesto.” Working on the definition from danah boyd: “Social network sites are the latest generation of ‘mediated publics’ — environments where people can gather publicly through mediating technology. In some senses, mediated publics are similar to the unmediated publics with which most people are familiar — parks, malls, parking lots, cafes, etc.” Likewise, if one thinks of these familiar public spaces — parks, malls, parking lots, cafes, etc. — one realizes that some might, in fact, be owned by private companies, but still function as public spaces.

When I say that Twitter is a mediated and hacked public space, what I mean is that Twitter, the medium as a microblogging platform owned by a corporation, was never intended to become such a vast “public” digital space. Rather, its aims were likely about networking for information and commerce, not for the goals of political and social protest, the vocalization and amplification of minority voices and points of view. Nor was it imagined as the digital space most conducive to the actual mingling of a huge multiracial, multi-bodied, multi-abled population. If Robert Jones’s Atlantic article is right, most white Americans do not have any friends of another race. However, when they use Twitter, that changes quite drastically. Privately owned spaces can be hacked to become ersatz communal public spaces.

The best example I have of this is a small park/large lawn in front of a high rise office building on Wilshire Blvd in Koreatown. Los Angeles’s urban landscapes are notorious for their lack of centralized public spaces; instead, there are many more spaces owned by corporations and seen as private property. Though technically Griffith Park is larger than Central Park, it does not function as a centralized public space. Urban geographers, city planners, and critics have discussed Los Angeles’s dispersed geographies as well as its battles over private control of public works including the closure of the functioning subway system in 1963 (See Mike Davis’s history). In Los Angeles’s Koreatown, the central node of mediated public space is a patch of grass on Wilshire which is the small lawn/park owned by an office tower. But because of its location and the fact that the next building has a massive jumbotron on its side, it has become a hacked public space. There are public festivals; there are middle of the night viewings of World Cup games where the city shuts down Wilshire because of the crowds; there are more civic-minded political protests. In a city without a defined center, this mediated public space has at the moment become a central node for a minority population.

Likewise, Twitter is a corporate-owned digital medium that has become a hacked public digital media space. The medium has been bent to the purposes of its users. A large percentage of minority and women users are on Twitter according to a Pew Research Center study. As Sydette Harry has written in “Attacking the Stream,” for groups who do not have or have never had the power to control conversations, Twitter works because “we don’t expect technology to conform to our consumption habits; we adapt to the platforms we’re given and make them our own.” She discusses exactly how a hacked digital media public works and functions even within a government, academic, neoliberal surveillance climate:

For those of us in marginalized communities, surveillance is a part of life that we have long been accustomed to. We know we are being watched and measured. Unlike many who bemoan a more innocent era of tech, we have come to accept those conditions because they were practiced on us first. So rather than falling into a fight or flight mentality, we find the cracks in the infrastructure and break through them.

So within a frame of understanding how Twitter functions as a hacked digital media public, instructors and students can work out how to create digital communities with lively dialogue and debates while also thinking about how mediated publics function and what sort of affordances and limits this particular medium allows and also breaks down.

Twitter Basics

What are the ethics and legalities of free speech, respectability, and “civility” in these contexts? In considering this question, start with Zeynep Tufekci’s “Social Media is a Conversation Not a Press Release”. Then, look at the aforementioned “#TwitterEthics Manifesto”.

These begin to create a framework for how Twitter functions as digital publics. From here, we can consider Twitter’s multiple pedagogical functions. If Twitter is a public square, many kinds of activities can happen on it: business advertising; public protests (#Ferguson, #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen), public lectures (and conference hashtags), public art installments and performances; rants on soapboxes of all sorts; hanging out with colleagues and friends; public grief; public information exchange; and public education conducive to open discussion (#SaturdaySchool, #DecolonizeSAAM, #MillenialsOfColor).

Twitter as a Mediated Public Protest Space

Twitter receives a lot of mainstream press about its function as a mediated public protest space. Hashtag Activism is a valid and important node in organizing, encouraging, disseminating information, and archiving public protests. For example, there were over 1 million tweets before #Ferguson got coverage from mainstream media. The #Ferguson protests have effectively mobilized the country with #BlackOutBlackFriday and #HandsUpWalkOut. Likewise, Alicia Garza’s #BlackLivesMatter has become a powerful node over the last several months. In the end, Twitter and other social media sites have usurped mainstream media as the main and primary source of on-the-ground, archived, filtered, and live information about police brutality, antiblackness, and #JusticeForMikeBrown. The power of social media, but particularly Twitter’s rhizomatic (i.e. multiple, non-hierarchical exits and entry points), flattened structure, has created pushback and even #TwitterPanic. You can see this as recently as Bob McCulloch (Ferguson’s District Attorney’s) statement that social media and particularly Twitter were causing the problems in #Ferguson (rather than police brutality and anti-blackness). Of course, this particular charge is racialized since the trending, spread, and public protest and outcry over #Ferguson and #JusticeForMikeBrown were driven by #BlackTwitter.

Exploring Social Power Relations on Twitter

Some resources for instructors and students who want to explore these topics further:

  • For discussions of the hashtag and its aggregating powers, begin with with Suey Park and Eunsong Kim’s “Hashtags as Decolonial Projects with Radical Origins.”
  • Follow this up with Sophia Seawell’s “#NotYourAsianSidekick: Rethinking Protest Spaces and Tactics.”
  • Finally, to delve deeply into the methodologies, pitfalls, affordances, and possibilities of doing analysis of Twitter as a social media protest space, I would recommend looking at a trio of articles by Zeynep Tufekci:
    • “Big Questions for Social Media Big Data: Representativeness, Validty and Other Methodological Pitfalls”;
    • “‘Not This One’: Social Movements, the Attention Economy, and Microcelebrity Networked Activism”;
    • “Social Media and the Decision to Participate in Political Protest: Observations From Tahrir Square” by Zeynep Tufekci and Christopher Wilson.

For pedagogical resources on #Ferguson on Twitter, see how #FergusonSyllabus was created and consider Marcia Chatelain’s resource list in The Atlantic.

As a protest space, the point of Twitter is to boost the signal so that others and eventually mainstream media, local officials, politicians, and the world at large notices and adds their voice. It can also be an organizing space for international protest coordination as we saw after the Mike Brown murder when @FeministaJones organized #NMOS14 as a vigil reaching nearly all 50 states, Europe, and Canada.

However, analysis that requires harvesting data or visualizing data requires consideration of Tufekci’s and Wilson’s point that the big data modeling does not actually tell the whole story. In fact, as Tufekci has argued, the best approach to this work is to get the narratives from the communities and be scrupulously ethical about how this is done. Twitter is a multivocal platform, so it’s important to talk directly with communities to see how they want their narratives told, archived, discussed. As Eusong Kim and I wrote in “#TwitterEthics Manifesto,” the American Folklore Society has guidelines and statements about this, where they reject the term “human subjects.” The main rule of working with students and Twitter is to realize that ethics should be emphasized above all else. Harvesting, quoting, and using others tweets without consent, attribution, discussion, or compensation/credit is a major problem. The odds are that if people are protesting using a hashtag, they are willing to speak about why they are protesting so interview them and ask permission about quoting a tweet. Likewise, if you are running a Twitter teach-in, you might as the moderator just say that you plan to storify the tweets in an archive and if people would just tell you up front if they want their tweets left out.

A subcategory of the Political/Social Protest is the Political/Social Rant. Yes, very much like a public space, people on Twitter can decide to tweet a rant while standing on a soapbox about a whole range of topics. This is completely standard in public spaces. As an undergraduate at Berkeley, I and everyone else on campus knew that between the hours of about 11am-3pm in Sproul Plaza, people would literally get on boxes and discuss socialism, Jesus, why we should all ask the Regents to divest in Big Oil, etc. There were also a cappella groups, jugglers, slam poetry, and step troupes performing. Feel free to retweet and boost whichever public event captures your interest. However, if they have a sign that says no photography, no recording, and no live-tweeting, you should know what that means.

Twitter as a Space for Public Community Grief

#Ferguson has made the public acutely aware about what public community grief can look like. This is also true on Twitter, people want to turn to this public digital medium to grieve as a group over local, national, and global events. But there are rules on how one should behave during these times of collective public digital grief.

  1. Communities that are affected by tragedy should always be centered in grieving. They are most affected, bearing the largest burden, and dealing with the most public scrutiny. In so doing, be polite, show support, but do not take over the conversation by tweeting what you think of said tragedy for more than a handful of tweets. In fact, in such situations, and especially if there is a hashtag, follow the lead of the community, boost their signals by retweeting what they are saying (do not quote the tweets), and do what they ask including boosting certain hashtags. This is also known as staying in your lane. It is an incredibly difficult time, be mindful of your privileges and your inability to speak for the group grieving.

  2. Along with this, if the group has asked to not post triggering images, video, or posts that they feel will harm them further, do that. Listen to the community. Do not discount their requests. Otherwise, you are basically creating more harm for them in this difficult time. Again, it is the community who should decide what they want to do in order to grieve.

  3. In tweeting during moments of community grief, do not take things too personally if you accidentally make mistakes and are told off by the community members grieving. In particular, if you have to tweet someone to ask basic questions about what happened and the narrative. Remember, this is labor that you have asked the community grieving to do that also triggers the trauma of the tragedy. Instead, go back and read people’s timeline or the hashtag’s timeline.

  4. Always support the community who are dealing with the tragedy. Be polite, ask if they need things, or just silently retweet. This is about respecting community grief at all times.

  5. If you want to do some sort of discussion and/or article on the grieving community and a particularly hashtag, please wait some time and be very careful to respect the community. Ask politely for permission to use their tweets, explain what you are going to do, and do not get angry if they say “no.” The individuals in a community get to decide if they wish to have their grief publicized. Just thank them for replying and move on politely.

  6. Never tone-police and tell the community grieving that they should grieve in the way you, as an outsider, feel is appropriate. It is not your place. Communities can decide how, when, and in what forms they wish to express their grief over their communal tragedy. Respect their rights to choose how to grieve.

Algorithms and Social Media

If students want a more in-depth consideration of the technical platform and its algorithms, functionality, and problems, they can begin by reading these two pieces by Zeynep Tufekci: “What Happens to #Ferguson Affects Ferguson: Net Neutrality, Algorithmic Filtering, and Ferguson” and “Why Twitter Should Not Algorithmically Curate the Timeline.” Then, consider the many complaints that have been discussed on Twitter regularly by women of color users about privacy, stalkers, the functionality of the DM, the mute button, the issues of abusive twitter users, etc.

An excellent assignment would be to read Aja Romano’s article about the #AskCostolo hashtag and look at the #AskCostolo hashtag. The students will undoubtedly notice that for a question and answer forum, Costolo never answered the majority of questions asked to him that related entirely to abuse issues on Twitter. Again, as a multivocal medium that talks back, Twitter makes it difficult for CEOs and others to “control” the conversation and the sound-bytes.

Academic Twitter and Live-Tweeting Conferences and Talks

The rules of live-tweeting academic conferences and talks have been specifically explained in numerous articles: Ekins & Perlstein in PLOS Computational Biology, Steve Kolowich in Inside Higher Education (The Academic Twitterazzi), Menachem Wecker in the Chronicle, and Ernesto Priego in The Guardian. I have written about it myself for my own Medieval Studies discipline in “#MedievalTwitter.” An interesting assignment for students would be to read one of these and consider what their majors or academic disciplines’ Twitter feeds look like, what they are most interested in topically, and what the varying reasons to use Twitter are in those disciplines. The academic etiquette surrounding Twitter is that live-tweeting is permitted unless the speaker and/or moderator says that the presenter does not want any live-tweeting. Though, one should, just to be extra polite, ask for permission to quote whoever you are tweeting if you publish something on a blog, article, or in other more formal ways.

Twitter Teach-Ins function similarly to public lectures but with more participants and more interaction. The point is also to signal boost to attract more participants and discussion. An interesting assignment for instructors and students would be to organize a teach-in on a specific topic and then to have the students advertise it on Twitter, possibly contact Rhonda Ragsdale (@ProfRagsdale) who does #SaturdaySchool to boost that signal or even collaborate, and try out a teach-in with your class. Likewise, I have seen #DecolonizeSAAM from the Save Wiyabi Project, who regularly hold live-tweeting on varied topics accompanied by video conversations and discussion. Or look at #MillenialsOfColor who also work with a similar format. They advertise times for a live-tweet chat plus include Google+ video discussion. Likewise, you can see this happen with #FergusonFireside which are chats with the organizers on video and in conversation on Twitter.

Twitter as a Social Space

Twitter is also a mediated social space. Friends and colleagues hang out, discuss politics, entertainment, how hot Alexander Skarsgård is on True Blood, how Apple’s iPhone is too big or too small, the best recipe for chocolate cake, etc. These are semi-private conversations happening in a mediated social public. Therefore, when journalists, academics, and MRA activists from 4chan decide to use this digital space to harvest tweets without consent, permission, discussion, interaction, or credit/compensation, it is a form of harassment, stalking, and violent aggression. It can be compared to having the government come in and record your conversation without your permission or consent. Or how it would feel if unsanctioned pictures of you in a public space got sold to the National Enquirer. Again, this is not ethical and is a form of violent aggression. Be mindful. Public, as I hope this article shows, means many things. Do not blithely use the arguments so many white politicos, media pundits, and academics use: “Twitter is Public.” As we can see, Twitter is a very complex, organic, and mediated public space. There are many rules in relation to many kinds of public situations.

In addition, when friends and colleagues are having specific conversations in groups that aren’t necessarily about the political/social protest, part of a political rant, teach-ins, or live-tweeting a conference discussion, there are etiquette issues. Yes, it’s fine to retweet things that you find interesting in the conversation, but please as you would in a social group at a public plaza that you do not really know and they do not know you, introduce yourself and ask politely if you can join in the discussion because you are very interested in x and y topic. Also, make sure you know what the conversation has actually been about before just jumping in. Be informed, be polite, and listen.

Twitter Abuse and Twitter as a Radically Inclusive Public Space

Finally, understand that like so many public spaces in the world and particularly in the Anglo-speaking world, certain kinds of digital bodies get more harassment, stalking, abuse, and violent aggression thrown at them than others. Digital bodies are an extension of bodies in real life. Therefore marks of race, gender, disability, religion, and sexuality make Twitter both a medium of possibility and a medium where the same sorts of surveillance, abuse, control, and silencing happens to these divergent bodies as in real public spaces. During #RaceSwap, for example, prominent black and other WOC feminists switched their avatars to white men and the number of threats, trolls, violent aggression, and harassment dropped substantially. Again, digital bodies and how they are marked matter tremendously in public mediated spaces.

For students and instructors to explore what this means, I would suggest reading the entire Model View Culture issue about Social Media, as well as Andy Smith and Miriame Kaba’s great piece “Interlopers on Social Media: Feminism, Women of Color, and Oppression.”

Twitter as a Space for Learning

Teachers and students alike need to understand that this particular social medium has become a space of activism and justice, which means that abuse will not be tolerated and that people and their friends and colleagues will fight back. Apologies are perfectly fine on Twitter especially if you’ve realized only after the fact that you have committed ethical and/or etiquette infractions. If Twitter is a space for learning, discussion, and thoughtful interaction, we need to consider how much particular forms of privilege will inform our positionality on this medium. Do not immediately expect to have “respect” and “authority” because you are a college student or a college instructor. Rather, understand that you will earn respect by what you say and what you do; by who you defend and who and what you fight for — by how much you have reflected on one’s position and privilege in the world.

Twitter is not a one-directional medium. It’s a complex, every-changing, rhizomatic digital medium. And this is entirely why Twitter is a wonderful learning space. Enjoy. Tweet. Interact.


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Critical Digital Pedagogy Copyright © 2020 by Dorothy Kim is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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