140 Characters – Censored

Twitter censors content from certain countries.  They creatively call this “country withheld content.” So, if you’re from China and want to post a dissenting tweet, Twitter will delete it and post something like this:


This started in 2012, so I am admittedly a little behind the times (I blame my dissertation).

I bring this up because my students love to claim that Twitter is more free and more fair than other forms of social media. They like to point out something is more “pure” about expressing themselves in 140 characters.

And, while there may be something direct about this compression of expression, this censorship raises questions about the future of social media in protest movements. Is it so far-fetched to think that the Department of Homeland security could decide to target a domestic terror group and censor their tweets?

Communicating Loss

When my mother died five or so years ago, I didn’t know how to tell people.  I wanted to avoid talking about it, about why I missed a week of classes, about why I went social media silent. Instead of posting about it, I shared the eulogy I delivered at her funeral as a Note on Facebook. I think Notes were more popular at the time and her eulogy is sandwiched between a list of Shakespearean Porno Titles and a list of words that I discovered while writing my dissertation.  Looking back, a eulogy, a post, or a photo on Facebook are all completely inadequate to the task of sharing how much I lost when my mother died.

Me, My Mom, and My Brother – 80s Chic

So, why do we post about loss on social media?  In a way, it’s a fast way to alert everyone in your life about what’s going on. From the casual acquaintance to your best friend, everyone knows in a second that you’re in pain.  They can share this information with your co-workers and anyone who might accidentally bump into and ask an insensitive question.

For example, a dear friend of mine recently suffered a brain aneurysm. After calling everyone to let them know, his wife has used Caring Bridge to keep his friends and family updated.  She’s also used it to ask people for help covering her classes, keeping her daughters busy, and keeping the vast number of friends who are scientists on alert. She’s posted links to Caring Bridge on her and her husband’s Facebook, but everything else has been through CB. With their friends and family scattered all over the country, this format seems the best way to communicate – social media at its best.

At the same time, I think some people share loss, disease, and other pain on social media because they need to legitimize or call attention to their suffering. I see people on Facebook lap up the platitudes. They publicize drama and mourning in a way that offends my Midwestern reserve. Handle your shit quietly. Suffer in silence.  Be strong. However, I don’t know if that’s the answer either.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – I could see any of these used a way to share stories and create a group eulogy or hold a virtual funeral. I’m not sure if I’m comfortable streaming a funeral as this New York Times story suggests, but digital spaces and social media seem like they could become legitimate ways for people to share their stories and connect through loss.

What reddit Does Right

Recently, I’ve posted a lot about how social media shames people. In class, my students mentioned that social media creates and perpetuates drama – sometimes in really poisonous ways.  In fact, one student is writing her Multimodal Advocacy Project about cyber bulling.

And yet, I see ways in which social media and collaborative writing spaces provide 30 Rockunique opportunities for people to connect. Today, I read this story about a reddit megathread in which women recounted stories about the first time they were looked at in a sexual way by a man (Trigger Warning if you decide to read the thread). This thread on reddit is really powerful because of the sheer number of women coming together to describe their experiences.  I should clarify. This question garnered thousands of responses and tens of thousands of comments.

The power of this megathread is manifold. First, the pathos of these women’s stories is powerful. Reading about an eight year old girl running away from a stranger in a store or about a twelve year old girl having obscenities hurled at her from moving cards, makes the reader realize how vulnerable young girls can be in the most mundane situations. In many of the stories, the girls didn’t understand what the men said to them. Their innocence emphasizes the threat. For women, the experiences are so familiar that they may feel sympathy.

While pathos is a powerful appeal, in some ways, this thread is really an appeal to ethos. The credibility of these women is created by their critical mass. When thousands of women in a relatively small corner of the world share story after story about harassment, their authority to make truth claims increases. Collaborative social media created a space for these women to demonstrate that this experience is real and ubiquitous. In other words, the massive response makes it an appeal through phronesis. It’s common knowledge now; prepubescent girls are sexually harassed before they understand their young bodies.

As much as I may rail against the sexism on reddit, I am impressed when women can use the space to make statement about the conditions they live in.

Social Media Pillory

This week a friend of mine posted about her experience on a dating website. In doing so, she posted screenshots of her interactions with an extremely crude individual on Facebook. She is not alone; see the Instagram account, Bye Felipe. After posting the screenshots, one friend called the guy a “Douche.” My friend responded thusly, “Yeah. It’s a pretty common occurrence, and it shouldn’t be. Public shaming it is!”

This interaction sparked two responses for me. Let’s start with the first one. The amount of violence and sexually explicit language directed toward women online is atrocious. Douche2Women must be careful about their interactions online because men routinely threaten them with rape, hate f*cking, or just outright physical violence. As the screenshot my friend posted online shows, the guy behaves like a classic abuser and moves from “Please forgive me” to “Speak when spoken to” within a few hours.  Of course, this degenerates into vulgar descriptions of his penis, which also seems extraordinarily threatening when capped with “Dumb bitch.”  Almost every woman I know on a dating site, reddit, or other forms of social media has been threatened and called a bitch.

Conversely, my gay male friend who is also on an online dating site reports a different experience. He talks about purposefully teasing other members about their profiles. When I asked him about retribution, he was shocked.  He said, “Yeah, sometimes they say stuff back, but nobody threatens me. Does that happen to women?” I think his experience highlights how high the stakes are for women online.

However, my second response to my friend’s post is equally problematic. Sharing the experience and showing how women are treated on dating sites is a legitimate way to start a conversation on Facebook. In fact, describing the the experience seems like an overtly feminist move by uncovering systemic oppression. This setup video of men catcalling their mothers shows how effective a little shaming can be.

And yet, when my friend posted the screenshots, she shared his photo, his user name, and his city of residence. In effect, she placed him in a pillory. Now the wider public can share in humiliating him for his crimes. Unlike the real pillory that is tied to a specific location, the pillory of the interwebs is everywhere.  Social media has taken public shaming to a global level.

In a perfect world, a man would never send threatening messages to a woman. Nevertheless, we live in this world in which these activities happen all of the time.  As we move forward, we may need to think about the effects of public shame. If our goal is to reform these men and change their behavior, I am not sure the Facebook pillory is the best answer.

Bullying Has No Boundaries

The news is full of stories about young people being bullied to the point of self-harm and suicide. Unfortunately, bullying isn’t a new phenomenon. For example, John Hughes‘s movies (Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club) rely on the tension of the bullied vs. the popular.

The big difference today is the constant presences of the interwebs. While Molly Ringwald can curl up in her bedroom and decide not to answer the phone, many students today cannot escape the hate. As their peers post hateful comments on Facebook and Twitter, their phones buzz every time. The tiny chime indicating that you have a new message may begin to feel like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Bells.”

The Canadian Safe School Network recently produced a video of young people reading mean tweets. 

They are playing with Jimmy Kimmel’s Celebrities Read Mean Tweets segment. When famous actors and athletes read petty comments, we laugh because their success demonstrates how ridiculous the comments are.  However, the humor found in Kimmel’s show falls apart when vulnerable teenagers read tweets about themselves.

Dealing with mean tweets is more difficult for teens. Teenagers do not have the resilience developed through decades of life. Worse than that, Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t have to face her haters every day in class. She does not have to experience teachers turning a blind eye, or worse participating in bullying. Teens are vulnerable and still shaping their identities. In the digital age, part of that identity is online. Unfortunately, bullying has expanded to make no space safe.

Greetings from the Panopticon

A few days ago, the news blew up with a story about a chapter of ΣAE at the University of Oklahoma. The fraternity members were recorded singing an obviously racist song about not admitting African Americans.

What strikes me most about this story is the power of an individual with a cellphone. The individual must have been “in” with the fraternity enough to gain access and yet shared the video. Surely, the sharer knew the potential consequences of sharing such a provocative material. Was the point to showcase the racism of the members?  Shut down the chapter?

Or, do the motives really matter?

The reason the video has power is because we’ve started surveilling ourselves. The government doesn’t need to tap our phones. We hand over our privacy willingly.  For a free app or access to a music library we allow corporations access to our locations, purchasing habits, and emails.  The government doesn’t need to monitor all of us – we monitor one another.

Of course, this is not an original idea.  In the 18th century, utilitarian philosopher Jeremy PanopticonBentham developed the idea of the panopticon. The panopticon allowed a single guard to monitor all prisoners. Today, our cellphones share our data the guards. We move about our self-created cells and report our activities to the monitors.

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault (1975) used the panoptic metaphor to describe the ways in which society normalizes our behavior. Be smart, but not too smart. Be pretty, but not too pretty.  Be sexual, but not too sexual.  Get married. Get a job. (I’m beginning to sound like Trainspotting.) The hegemony of the norm suppresses deviance.

A perfect example of this may be found in universities. Many of my students who were home schooled express shock at how disciplined education is in this country. Free exploration of ideas or just learning for the sake of learning are replaced by quantifiable exams and assignments. Even the technique of raising one’s hand to answer a question demonstrates the ways in which we are disciplined by the system. The guards are always watching.

For Foucault and other post-modern thinkers, this isn’t a hopeless system. Like weeds, counter culture can take root in the cracks of our self-made prisons. They exist together.

However, the closer we monitor ourselves, the easier it is to find the weeds and spray them with Roundup. Counter cultural ideas (even stupid racist ones) are stomped by the normalizing power of the interwebs.

Facebook and Social Action

This week, we talked about what genres do.  We had some great conversations about the function of Twitter and other social media. What makes an exemplary tweet?  What makes an exemplary Facebook status? I think we realized that a lot of the ways we measure successful rhetoric may not work for something like Facebook because the social action is different.  The social action of social networking is to get noticed, liked, and shared.  This may mean that deliberate, well-written, and considerate writing does not receive notice, where as over the top, hyperbolic, or weird writing is most successful.

In fact, the worst behavior is often rewarded in social media. In “7 Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook,” Tim Urban states that annoying statuses are self-serving: “A Facebook status is annoying if it primarily serves the author and does nothing positive for anyone reading it.”  I think there’s some truth to this, although I wonder what Facebook status isn’t a little self-serving. Regardless, here are his seven ways to be insufferable:

  1. The Brag, which includes greats like the “I’m Living Quite the Life” Brag, the Undercover Brag, and the “I’m in a Great Relationship” Brag
  2. The Cryptic Cliffhanger
  3. The Literal Status Update
  4. The Inexplicably-Public Private Message
  5. The Out-Of-Nowhere Oscar Acceptance Speech
  6. The Step Toward Enlightenment
  7. The Incredibly Obvious Opinion

These types of statuses are very common and very popular. That is to say, if you post, “Ughhhhhhhh,” you want someone to comment, “Oh baby, what’s wrong?”  And what’s worse, inevitably someone will.

And at the same time, this seems to be a rhetorically sound practice using a pathetic appeal. Your audience feels for you and responds accordingly. Perhaps we shouldn’t judge these masters of digital rhetoric.