In my continuing study of Internet rage, I stumbled across this commentary on the Justine Sacco affair. Sacco, you may recall, was the communications director for InterActiveCorp, who tweeted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” before getting on a flight to South Africa.
Upon arrival (the trip takes around 12 hours, an eternity on the web), Sacco found, among other things, that she had lost her job. An initially puzzled discussion about whether she had been hacked resolved itself into a collective belief that the offensive tweet had precedents, and must be genuine. While Sacco had been in the air, as Nick Bilton wrote on December 24 2013, “the Internet turned into a voracious and vengeful mob….people threatened to rape, shoot, kill and torture her. The mob found her Facebook and Instagram accounts and began threatening the same perils on photos she had posted of friends and family. Not satisfied, people began threatening her family directly.”
Bilton’s article provokes another thought: what feels so good about unmediated speech, and the fantasy that our voices are truly being heard? Should we pause occasionally in our Tweeting and Facebooking to examine the dark side of that feeling more closely? If a communications director of a communications company could make such an inept and unambiguously racist stab at humor over social media, most of us should probably be monitoring our online presence more closely. It’s hard to remember sometimes that we don’t have to respond to, or comment on, every little thing, nor do we need to be interesting and witty all the time. “The Right to Have a Feeling and Say It, the Right to Care, the Right to Comment and Have Your Voice Heard,” the editors of n+1 recently declared: “you’d think this is the only right we have.” If it isn’t one person who must be denounced, it’s another. “Before we know it,” they conclude, “we’ve found ourselves in a state of rage, a semi-permanent state of rage in fact, of perma-rage, our blood boiled by the things that make us mad and then the unworthy things that make other people mad.” (Against the Rage Machine, Winter 2014, 9.) For the ways in which the perm-rage of the comments section is gendered and raced, read about law professor Nancy Leong’s experience of, and thoughts about, online harassment here.
My question is this: given that social media is ubiquitous among academics, and given that our colleagues and students are sometimes justifiably angry about important things, ought we not to have some more serious discussions about what kind of speech we do — and do not — find acceptable? Should we not begin to identify what kinds of virtual conversations lead to real change and community building; and which are destructive, vengeful or personal hubris masquerading as charismatic leadership?
There are clear signs that if we do not begin to have these conversations among ourselves, others will seize the initiative and faculty will find ourselves perpetually in the position of responding to university attorneys, trustees, politicians and administrators. Last December, the University of Rhode Island initially responded to a post-Sandy Hook tweet by historian Erik Loomis with a punitive statement, even as Loomis was bombarded with hate over the Internet and visited by the Rhode Island State Police. Under more civil pressure from senior scholars, URI issued a statement that Loomis’s tweet fell within the bounds of the First Amendment. However, Loomis had not, the university later explained as they backed away from disciplining him, made “it clear that he was speaking solely as an individual, and that the views he expressed were his alone and did not reflect the views of the University of Rhode Island.” (Needless to say, a number of us rushed off to make that clarification in our own Twitter profiles.)
Last week, the University of Kansas Board of Regents adopted a controversial social media policy that lists a variety of ways in which social media might be seen to pit the First Amendment rights of faculty against the interests of the university. Many of these putative harms are so broad as to make it difficult to judge what might constitute a violation of the policy, and there is a legal precedent: public secondary school teachers have been fired for materials posted on Facebook. If found in violation of the current policy, KU employees could also be terminated: presumably this would include breaking tenure, but contingent faculty would be particularly vulnerable to such policies. Faculty are currently working on getting the policy, which was passed in the waning days of the semester, rescinded, but it’s a fair warning of what is to come if we don’t recognize that social media requires a broader discussion within professional organizations.
Social media doesn’t transform us into stupid or offensive people, but it means that when we act that way, we do it before an infinitely expandable audience that cannot confine our snarkery, taunts and insults to a close circle of friends. Although anonymity can protect a person from consequences under ordinary circumstances on blogs and Twitter, uncovering an anonymous internet troll’s IP address (particularly when it happens to be your university-issued computer) is the work of a moment for professionals. Even an ordinary hacker like me has access to tools that can get me pretty close, or right onto, your desktop if I put in the time (read about Leong tracking down and confronting a troll here.)
However, as in the Sacco case, some of the most intentionally offensive material in academic social media goes right out over a person’s real name, in moments of thoughtlessness, misplaced humor or anger. because why wouldn’t you want credit for it, right? And the target, as well as the spirit in which it is sent, is also unmistakable. An attack on Twitter is characterized by insults being delivered non stop on one’s mobile phone: you can’t not see them unless you are willing to turn off your push notifications, and even then they pile up on your @connect screen. A new smear tactic is to use an individual’s given name without appending that person’s Twitter @handle; trolls can exchange insults uninterrupted by the object of their rage until several hours of slime has built up.
Whether you are initiating a social media exchange or responding to one, these are key questions for academics to be thinking about over the next year in whatever groups, large and small, where we assemble. This is particularly the case, in my view, because when it works, social media holds open the possibility for cross-institutional communities that would never arise; continuing discussions begun at conferences; linking people to each other at academic meetings; and jumpstarting public conversations about the racial, gender and class dynamics of academic life. It creates the possibility for real friendships, and collaborations, between people who might otherwise see each other too infrequently to have those bonds form (see blogpal Historiann on our friendship.)
If you run a graduate program, do you discuss your graduate students’ use of social media? Do faculty model respectful, engaged disagreement with each other, on and off line? Have you had departmental conversations about the relative lack of privacy on Facebook, and the ease by which information and screenshots migrate to people who are targeted by nasty or thoughtless comments? Do you go over your university’s Internet use policy, and the circumstances under which electronic privileges might be withdrawn? Does everyone who is teaching in your unit understand the potential pitfalls of discussing students on social media, quoting or posting images of student work without permission, or having online conversations about searches, personnel cases and committee meetings? Do your candidates on the job market know what kind of sharing on a job wiki is helpful, what is spiteful, and how can mentors help relay negative feedback about a search to colleagues at other universities?
Professional associations are just grappling with how to embrace social media, but most people under the age of fifty already use it enthusiastically; moreover, we can project that current generations of graduate students, contingent and tenure-track faculty will develop significant aspects of their professional identities in a virtual environment. Social media is, indisputably, now a professional issue: it’s time to figure out how to weave conversation about its uses and abuses into our ongoing professional development, at all levels.
It might even make us all nicer.