Something happened on twitter last night. It was a powerful thing. Prompted by a discussion she was having with a few of her followers, twitter user @steenfox opened up the conversation and asked women to share with her what they were wearing when they were assaulted. She explicitly asked that they indicate if it was okay to retweet them, and even followed new people so that they could privately message their stories to her directly. Knowing that the topic was sensitive and triggering, she made as many provisions as she could (within the boundaries of twitter) to make the women who were engaging with her feel safe to speak out about their trauma. She spent the night retweeting replies and discussing her initial point: that there is no way to dress to avoid assault. It happens whether you're on the way to the gym in a tank top and shorts or on the way home from work in a business suit. Too many women recalled night gowns, childhood PJs and multiple assaults.
As this moment of intense cathartic solidarity was happening, Buzzfeed ran a post aggregating some of the tweets. The author claims to have gotten permission to embed the tweets, but some of the women involved claim otherwise. @steenfox was not contacted until after the post went up. The author, seeing the conversation happening in full swing, published too quickly and did not handle the subject with sensitivity. While they blurred some of the handles and avatars of the tweets involved, later portions of the piece directed the reader to these same accounts. This was while the conversation was still happening and before any of the women involved were allowed to process the emotions of discussing their (often multiple) assaults. The piece was not constructed with any sensitivity or care for the well being of the women involved. The Root, who published today and actually inerviewed @steenfox, managed to get it right. Allowing time to properly report on a story will do that. Because here's the truth: "In the commons" is not the same as "public."
Twitter is not public. Twitter is publicly accessible. There is a difference.
The conversation that @steenfox facilitated last night was one of healing and solidarity. It was about women, (and yes, mainly black women) sharing stories of assault and laying down the burdens of shame they have carried for years.
There will never be a need to callously turn that experience into a listicle for Buzzfeed. As I touched on earlier today on twitter, though Buzzfeed may have been within their legal rights to embed those tweets, to do so without thoughtfully considering the impact that doing so what have on the already traumatized women involved, was insensitive, and incredibly bad journalism. They did not consider the human cost of bringing unwanted eyes into the conversation.
Many of the women who spoke up last night did so spontaneously, caught up in the reassurance that they were not alone in their experiences. They shared directly with another woman who they trusted to take care with their stories. They anticipated that their stories might circulate within the tight twitter circles that each user creates for themselves. They did not anticipate an international audience and millions of eyeballs.
As blogger Nerd Grrrl Island puts it:
In that moment, it was not the time to ask a victim permission to use their most personal of stories for a piece, let alone a Buzzfeed list. That is beyond classless. For this argument, I'm going to assume every single person who was part of it, was asked and gave Buzzfeed permission. You have to remember they gave this permission last night, right in the middle of all this. Don't write about the victim/survivor experience unless you have some understanding of it and are empathetic to the people you are writing about. These are real people, speaking of painful pasts, many facing psychological issues from their assault and the PTSD that follows. In the midst of an emotional and empowering night like it was, we can feel more outspoken, especially when surrounded by others. If a victim feels she is in a safe space and has people supporting her (I received and saw others get "thinking of you," "take care of yourself" etc. tweets throughout the night), one may feel more encouraged than usual and might continue to speak out. One can get lost in the moment, feeling uplifted and brave, your emotions and story being legitimized. For some, last night was the first they'd admitted their sexual assaults. For others, it was the first time they spoke publicly about them. Until you understand the ramifications of this, you should not be writing about sexual assault victims at all.
"But why share then? It's on the INNANET! It's PUBLIC!"
Because twitter is how we put our feminism into praxis. Twitter is one of the chief ways in which black feminists (and women from other marginalized groups) are able to engage with each other, bond with each other, and heal together. Twitter is how we discover that we are not alone with our struggles. Exactly what happened last night.
As such, we have to work within the confines of the platform. This is how twitter works. Open profiles allow us to connect to each other with ease. I personally would never have found 75% of the incredible, intelligent women that I now follow if they were forced to use private profiles to protect themselves. Requiring us to lockdown our profiles in order to protect ourselves from harm is a form of silencing. It directly affects and limits the framework we use to engage with each other, and it prevents us from sharing our stories and finding the support we need. Not to mention, a locked profile cannot protect against a manual retweet from an ill-intentioned follower.
By defaulting to "twitter is public I don't need permission" when dealing with sensitive topics like this, you're effectively saying "Don't speak out! Don't share your stories! Don't share your pain! Because if you do I will be within my rights to exploit you, make money for myself and leave you to deal with the backlash." It puts us in a situation where we are pressured into speaking out against rape culture and punished by threats and abuse if we do. There is no way to win.
The "twitter is public" excuse is reductive and lazy. As I said, "in the commons" is not the same as "public." You wouldn't eavesdrop on a "private" conversation on the train, and then use the information for your next scoop, while identifying the person involved. Sure you "heard" it, but that person wasn't talking to you. And the women involved here were not talking to Buzzfeed. The lines between public and private online may be blurred but they're not invisible. Private conversations can and do happen in public spaces. Twitter is one such space. As one twitter user put it, twitter is equivalent to an off the record conversation. It is ethically unsound to publicly use information acquired in such a situation.
Buzzfeed's actions also show a disregard for the agency of the women involved. Many of the women quoted later said that when asked for permission to use their tweets (again, in the middle of the emotional peak of the conversation) they were unsure about what they were agreeing to. A few even said they panicked when they saw the piece and hence regretted sharing their story.
Because there is such a massive difference in audience. Sharing something of this nature with an open account and 15 followers is not the same as doing so on an internationally read website. Scope and context matter. What buzzfeed did put the vulnerable stories of these women out in the open and called attention to them without granting any protection for them. Because you know what happens when black women talk about sexual assault and rape culture online or in public? They get trolled. Hard. And while websites have moderators to deal with abuse, it's just ONE woman against ALL her trolls on twitter. One tweet I saw last night said:
Seems like all the black women got raped at some point. Makes sense.
And that was before Buzzfeed got themselves involved.
I also find it quite telling who seems to be on which side of this issue. When raping a black women wasn't even a crime until two to three generations ago, pushing boundaries around things like sexual assault is not okay. Not being mindful of the historical context of using a black woman's pain for profit is not okay. Not understanding how disregarding consent and flouting boundaries relates to rape culture is not okay. We should not have to beg to be treated decently in the communities we create for ourselves. We do not deserve to have people come into out metaphorical neighborhoods, pick up our shit, and go. And they are communities. We know each other and we trust each other. That is the way most people interact on twitter. Don't pretend like aggregating tweets from people you don't even follow, people whose tweets you would never ordinarily even come across, is not exploitative. Don't pretend like everyone sees everything on twitter always and you just chose a handful tweets for your story. This was specific community having and internal conversation and not expecting others to storm the fort. Black women are not here to teach you or provide you with content.
You learning from our experiences is not the same as us teaching you, and you do not have the right to our stories and lives. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should, and you don't get to say that we don't have the right to be upset that you violated the boundaries of common decency. We operate within a social contract, and part of that contract is not to try to monetize our pain and suffering. That's right, these websites are literally making money off of eavesdropping on our shared catharsis, while putting us at risk for even more abuse. How is that okay?
So again, twitter is not public. Twitter is publicly accessible. There is a difference.