Linking Without Consent: The New (Imagined) Tragedy of the Twitter Commons


Dani and George/Flickr

Public tweets are public. This is a fact, not a value judgment.

Twitter gives users the option to "protect" their accounts, only granting access to those a user chooses, but most folks voluntarily keep accounts open—which means that anything they post can be seen by anyone else on the Internet. It can also be re-tweeted, screenshotted, or even linked to from an outside site. 

If it seems like I'm overexplaining a pretty basic concept here: yes. And I'm really only paraphrasing what Hamilton Nolan has said better before. But this idea—that public tweets are public, can be viewed by the public, and can be shared in public—is apparently rather controversial in some circles. Twice in the past few months, journalists linking to public tweets have been targeted by folks hellbent on making the concept of violence so broad as to be meaningless and ignoring the forest for the (preferably posted with trigger warnings) trees. 

The latest incident stems from an Amber A'Lee Frost piece in Jacobin, "Bro Bash." After seeing Thomas Piketty and journalist Doug Henwood referred to as "broconomists", Frost criticized what she perceives as a nouveau left tendency to lower the bar for what's considered "outlandish masculinity."

Much like the hipster, Frost writes, "nearly any characteristic can be conveniently attributed to the bro," and nearly anyone—including a "chichi French economist" and a "poetry-loving Brooklyn dad on lefty radio"—can be labeled as such. The main thrust of Frost's piece seems to be that there's a resurgent tendency to view data as suspect, and this stems from both anti-elitism and "the reduction of feminist critique to the Fear of The Bro and His Insidious Patriarchal Methodologies." 

Make of that what you will—but no one engaging with the essay cared to. Instead, most of the attention has been focused on a link, now removed, to a public tweet from Al Jazeera journalist Sarah Kendzior. It was offered as an example of someone applying "the diminutive label of bro" to "violent aggression like rape threats," of which Frost disapproved. For this, Frost, Jacobin, and its editor, Megan Erickson, were accused of "endangering (Kendzior's) life." Anyone who disagreed was "defending misogyny" and probably "part of the pro-rape left."

If you're thinking are you fucking kidding me?then join the club. But there were also a significant number of people chiming in against Frost for linking without consent

The last time Twitter erupted over this was March, when a Buzzfeed reporter compiled some tweets about what women were wearing when sexually assaulted. "Twitter is full of people who are here to talk to each other. Not the world," wrote activist Mikki Kendall at the time. A petition called for "journalists, media companies and social media platforms like Twitter … to outline the ethical and moral obligations journalists have to not engage in violence toward marginalized people, survivors of sexual violence and others when engaging in online discussions." Here, not engaging in violence includes not linking to and/or quoting public tweets.  

That controversy eventually evolved into debate on whether quoting rape survivors' tweets, even with their permission (which the Buzzfeed reporter had), was ethical for journalists. In this case, the argument is more explicitly that writers should treat public tweets like they're not public, for some reason, and doing otherwise may be a form of HTML terrorism. 

If I spoke at a public panel, tacked a paper to a public bulletin board with my name on it, or stood ranting on a street corner, any of these statements could be quoted by journalists with legal impunity—and I highly doubt most people would find this ethically problematic, either. Under what possible rationale does someone have a reasonable expectation of privacy when speaking/writing/ranting on a worldwide platform?

Nolan got to the crux of the issue at Gawker: 

Just because you wish that someone would not quote something that you said in public does not mean that that person does not have the right to quote something that you said in public.

Anyone who has ever publicly spoken or written something dumb (hello), only to have that thing quoted and insulted by others, has probably wished that the thing that they said or wrote was not public. That feeling, while understandable, is only a wish. It does not mean that the thing they said or wrote was not, in fact, public.

Whether and when public tweets are public—answers: yes, and always—is not up for debate. It's a fact, and one that dealing in reality requires acknowledging. If you don't want people to link to or quote your tweets, then privatize your account or shut your virtual mouth. It really is that simple. 

I'll let New York Times media columnist David Carr sum it up. A whopping two years ago—that's about a century in meme and outrage cycles— Carr told Poytner he saw Twitter as a "village common" and anything posted there as fair game. "Everything said there, however considered or not, is public," Carr said. "I assume that if someone is saying something on Twitter, they want it to be known."