#etiquette: Buzzfeed posted tweets from sexual assault victims. Good call or not?


Twitter cofounder “Biz” Stone at South By Southwest March 11. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

This is an occasional feature wherein we discuss a bit of online etiquette currently in the news. You can find all our #etiquette posts compiled here.

Last night, prolific (and often provocative) Twitter-user @steenfox posed a question to victims of sexual assault, intended to debunk the oft-reported myth that victims are somehow to blame for attacks.

Four hours and dozens of grim, often heartbreaking responses later, Jessica Testa — a reporter for Buzzfeed — recapped the conversation in a post titled “Sexual Assault Survivors Answer The Question, ‘What Were You Wearing When You Were Assaulted?’”

… and all heck broke loose.

To be clear, Testa got permission to “include” the tweets from each victim named. (Whether they understood that the tweets would be embedded — meaning that their photos, names and Twitter accounts were only a click away from readers — is, of course, impossible to say.) But that hasn’t stopped Twitter’s self-appointed thought leaders from breaking out in heated debate over the media’s use of embedded tweets, and where the boundary between “public” and “private” really ought to lie these days.

That is, of course, what we’re actually debating when we talk about embeds: the essential nature of Twitter. Is Twitter a public space — a perpetual social performance? Or is it something else, more akin to spoken conversation, where contexts vary and privacy has gradients?

On the one hand:

On the other:

And in the grey area in between:

There are — clearly! — valid arguments on both sides. But ultimately, it isn’t up to us to say what Twitter is or isn’t: That’s up to Twitter, a giant company with a very lengthy terms of service and, presumably, entire teams of product managers and business strategists and engineers dedicated to debating this very type of question. Twitter is unequivocal. If your account is not explicitly set to private, it is public. In fact, when you think about it, the whole site is prefaced on this ability to “share,” i.e. “further publicize,” individual messages.

In that context, can there really be any realistic expectation of privacy?

Many Twitterati have argued, convincingly, that Twitter shouldn’t operate this way: That there are different conversational contexts on the platform, and that a private individual should be protected from having her tweet appear on Buzzfeed, and that, most importantly, Twitter should reflect that. But until Twitter does reflect that, in its terms of service and its essential interface, it’s a public space. Full stop.

TL;DR: Twitter is a public platform; embed away. The essential problem with all this, really, is that we all sometimes forget how painfully public the Internet is.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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