When I first signed on to Twitter and started to get the hang of it, I was like I had finally found the community I had been looking for all along. I found educators who shared my values, academics who challenged me without condescending to me, and a support system I had never really had during my academic career. While I am not naive to the realities of the wild, wooly web more generally (I’ve read the comment sections on certain other higher education publications), I was surprised and relieved to find a group of supportive, kind, and generous people. I tried as much as possible to respond in kind, being as generous and supportive as I could be. I believe in Twitter karma, and I try to give back to my community as much as it has given to me.
All that seems to be changing.
This has been on the minds of a couple of bloggers lately, such as Kathleen Fitzpatrick (and then a response from Tim McCormick and her response to him) and Ryan Cordell (when he’s not off helping to save millions of puppies). There seems to be a general malaise in the Twitter-verse around how we treat and interact with one another. It’s inevitably what happens when a medium becomes increasingly popular; new people start using the technology and the community grows and changes. But it’s one thing when you mom and/or dad gets Facebook (which is a reference that dates me a little, as I have a feeling that many people reading this are said parents); it’s another one entirely when your chair gets on Twitter. Some of these changes were inevitable, as early adopters move into new roles higher up the food chain, but as those who are already in positions of power get on Twitter, or those who seek to use Twitter to do things other than form community, things start to change, and not for the better.
As the community grows, the shorthand we had all more or less naturally adapted and adopted gets misinterpreted and misused. We’re not sitting relatively anonymously in the corner, we’re taking up a more central role. And that’s hard to maneuver; I struggled with a similar shift when I moved the blog here at IHE. But, that move was made easier knowing that my Tweeps (largely) had my back. But something is changing. It’s still amazing to me how it is happening before our eyes and a number of us notice within the same small timeframe. Each incident might be completely independent from the others, but we all start noticing at the same time, something has changed.
And then something unacceptable happened to a friend of mine. Tressie McMillan Cottom (who graciously wrote a guest blog here) has had false accusations lobbied against her on Twitter that attacks both her professional and personal integrity. This is bullying, plain and simple, the kind of bullying, shaming, and silencing that happens far too often in academia, but has largely been absent in the academic discourse that took place on Twitter. Tressie has decided to fight these false allegations and these attempts to slander her. And, if you read the comments on her blog post, there had been a real outpouring of support for her from her community, wherever they may reside. I consider bringing more attention to what is happening my small contribution, my piece of support, to stand up and say: this behavior cannot stand.
And what about all the younger aspiring scholars, many who are women and POC, who are now scared. What will happen to them if they try to engage public discourse? Will someone post a picture of them from high school? An old rumor about them from undergrad? Their deepest moments of vulnerability and shame? After working so hard on creating these spaces, how do we maintain and grow them, reassure young scholars that it is, indeed, worth it to reach out and engage with a larger group, across groups?
This incident reinforces my fear that Twitter for academics is turning into academia in 140 characters, with the same power structures, the same petty politics, and the same rigid policing of speech and ideas. I think we, as a community, need to firmly take a stand against bullying. We cannot just rely on the institution (who, let’s face it, has allowed this kind of bullying to happen, but behind closed doors) for a long, long time. If we, as a community of connected academics, don’t stand up for Tressie and stand against this kind of behavior online, it will keep happening. Too many academics from traditionally unrepresented demographics have been silenced (through fear and intimidation) in the institution, and we cannot let the institution re-create that environment online. We staked out our territory on Twitter and blogs because we could find and use our voices, as well as find our place and support. As more and more “traditional” academics begin to migrate to twitter, we need to be vigilant to this and supportive of one another.
Twitter is no longer the proverbial Wild West, but we do not need to cede it to the “civilizing” forces looking to quantify, stratify, and remake it in their own image.