Friday, December 20, 2013

In Defence of Twitter Feminism

This is something I've been wanting to talk about for a while, but a recent flurry of derisive articles decrying "twitter feminism" and online activism in general have brought it back to the front of my mind. I'd rebut these articles directly, but plenty of much smarter people have already got that under control. What I want to talk about is this whole perception that what happens on Twitter doesn't really matters in the scheme of things, the idea that Twitter in particular is just a bunch of spoiled brats complaining to empty air. I want to talk about this idea that "twitter feminism" doesn't matter, that all the discussions and movements are without substance because it's not happening in the "real world."

I think this is total, utter, bullshit.

It's true that there are some massive flaws in "twitter feminism". For a start, it's a small arena in the grand scheme of things. Conversations online are not the whole of feminism - not by a long shot. While I personally spend an inordinate amount of time on Twitter, I know a lot of people who don't go anywhere near online discussion of feminism, ever. These people aren't necessarily uninterested in feminism, or not out there doing feminist work - I'm sure a lot of them are doing far more work on the ground to improve the lives of other women than I'll ever do from my phone. (Mind you, I strongly disagree with the perception that doing work "on the ground" and participating in online conversations are mutually exclusive - I know many people who do both)

When people accuse "twitter feminism" of being a conversation that only includes a very small proportion of people, I can't really argue. I couldn't find statistics for Australia, but only 7% of the total American population uses Twitter, and only 21% of registered users across the world are actually active at all. There are also a small group of users dominating this conversation - 90% of tweets are from 22% of users. This small, verbose, influential group have been dubbed "power users" by social media experts and it's true that they do hold a LOT of power in the overall conversation. Twitter can also unfortunately be a bit of an echo chamber sometimes, especially for users who dismiss all disagreement as "harassment" and choose to surround themselves only with people who agree with them on all points. Even for those of us who do try and diversify our Twitter social circle as much as possible, there are still massive chunks of the population who simply aren't represented in the mere 7% of the population using Twitter.

It's true that the nature of Twitter and online communication in general does tend to encourage hostile, divisive scenarios. When you're limited to text (or GIF) based communication, there is a huge range of nuance that is lost - all the additional information that can be conveyed in facial expressions, gestures, body language, all that good stuff is stripped right out. You're left with just your naked words, and a lot of people don't think carefully enough about how their words can come across when sent out into the world stripped of their soft bundle of mitigating body language. This sort of text based communication also invites misunderstanding - naked words without supporting information can sometimes not only have a much harsher impact than intended, but come also across completely differently to how they are intended. With Twitter specifically, trying to limit your thoughts to 140 characters further strips back any possible nuance, and encourages sweeping, snappy, re-tweetable statements. Frankly, it's not great, and it sparks a lot of conflict that might otherwise be avoided.

The nature of Twitter also encourages dog-piling when there is a heated debate. One person retweets something someone said, all their followers take exception to it and throw their two cents in before retweeting it to their followers. They then take exception and throw their two cents on the exponentially increasing pile, and the first person in the situation is suddenly drowned in feedback, usually negative. Sometimes this negative feedback is well deserved, and sometimes the dogpile nature of Twitter is used to bully people who don't have the following to fight back. It's one of the most commonly used examples of everything that's bad about "twitter feminism", and while I think it's important to point out the stacking effect can also to positive feedback, I can't help but agree this sort of behavior is primarily used in a negative way.

These are all major flaws in "twitter feminism", for sure. I can't deny any of that, and I don't think they should be ignored. I think they are all things we should be working to make better about "twitter feminism". But just because something is flawed doesn't mean there's no value to it at all.

I want to add to wider conversation all the things that "twitter feminism" has given me, that I consider absolutely invaluable. I want to point out all the things that I get from it, that I can't get anywhere else, and that I hope I never have to learn to do without.

Perhaps the most "legitimate" reason to spend so much time online is that "twitter feminism" brings me the news in a way that's so much more comprehensive and informative than any major media news outlets. Sure, some of the stuff that goes around doesn't deserve the attention that it gets. But being on Twitter while Wendy Davis was filibustering for reproductive rights was a truly staggering illustration of how woefully inadequate media outlets can be in comparison. "Twitter feminism" told me all about Wendy Davis first, and in the most detail. "Twitter feminism" fed me articles on the details of the bill she was protesting, and the possible ramifications. When she was filibustering, it was "twitter feminism" that was giving me a blow by blow, sentence by sentence, thrown tampon by thrown tampon account that was so comprehensive I felt like I was there. And what were the major news networks in the area showing? "CNN aired a repeated segment of Piers Morgan and Anderson Cooper discussing the calories in a blueberry muffin."

When a similarly problematic legislation was being discussed in the NSW Parliament, it was "twitter feminism" that first alerted me to the bill. It was "twitter feminism" that connected me with people who could fill me in on the legal intricacies, and the potential outcomes of the bill. "Twitter feminism" told me exactly which members voted for and against the bill, and how to contact them. The major news outlets covered the proposed legislation, but it was more or less the same 200 words reshaped for every paper. "Zoe's Law might interfere with women's right to an abortion", they all said. But if I wanted an answer as to exactly how this was so, where it had come from, and what it would likely mean for me as a woman, I had to go back to "twitter feminism".

Straight up news isn't the only way "twitter feminism" feeds my brain though. The incredible diversity of "twitter feminism" has also absolutely rocked my world. I don't mean tokenistic, "I talked to the black guy at work" bullshit diversity, I mean really being allowed into the everyday ins and outs of experiences totally different to my own on a daily basis. Twitter is an invaluable way to learn about people, experiences, and views of the world that you might never come across in "real" life - if you're willing to learn. There are some people who have no interest in learning from anyone else on Twitter, it's true. The sheer number of times I've seen people be asked politely, over and over, to simply stop calling sex workers "prostituted women" and then continuing to do so anyone is just one example of the absolute willful ignorance I've seen. However, if you're willing to open your eyes and actually take in what's going on around you, there is more to learn and absorb than anyone could manage in a lifetime. And I think that's incredible. This level of detail about such an enormous range of experiences has never been so easily available, and I'm astonished that more people aren't eagerly soaking it all up. I consider myself a pretty darn curious person when it comes to other people - I'm that creep who peers in stranger's windows if you leave them open and I'm walking past. I'm sorry, I just can't help myself. So to have access to millions of windows into millions of houses is just breathtaking - even my allegedly boundless curiosity is sometimes overwhelmed.

This level of access into diverse perspectives has taught me that it's never "just words." It's easy to dismiss the idea of using correct pronouns as "PC bullshit" if you don't actually know anyone it effects. But when you see how much hurt a simple "he" instead of "she" can cause on an individual level, it becomes absolutely crystal clear that it's not bullshit at all. Two seconds thought about which word to use can change someone else's entire day for better or worse, and if I choose not to expend that two seconds, then the consequences are on me. Thanks to "twitter feminism", I know just how excruciatingly painful those consequences can be. I've seen some people witness these consequences and still dismiss correct pronouns as worthless, but I just can't get my head around that. Once I knew how hard those words could hit, I could never throw them out thoughtlessly again.

As well as sadness, "twitter feminism" has shown me the incredible kindness people can extend to each other sometimes. Twitter flame wars haven't taught me anything new about how fucked up, vicious and cruel people can be. I already knew all that, and honestly, I'm never shocked by how low people will go to hurt other people when they're really determined to do damage. It's one of the reasons I've never been particularly fond of having a large social circle - more people equals a higher percentage of running into a complete asshole, and I didn't like those odds. But the kindness, the caring, the supportiveness I've seen among the people on my Twitter feed is something I had no idea really existed in the world outside midday movies. It honestly brings me to tears. The people who offer kind words, somewhere to crash, money, food, just because someone they've never met in person needs it make me view humanity in a whole new light. Some of the friends I've made on Twitter are so big hearted, so generous, and so loving that they make me want to be a better person just by being who they are. They've managed to convince me that there really ARE people worth knowing out there that I don't already know, and shown me that so many random acts of kindness go on under our noses all the time.

"Twitter feminism" can be fucked up sometimes. It can be frightening, cruel, and willfully ignorant and I would never call anyone a coward for walking away from it. But totally selfishly, I hope the people in my "twitter feminism" never do, because I think I would be a much lesser person without them. Without their kindness, their patience, and their generosity in opening their hearts and lives to me, I would be a much harder, colder person. And frankly, a lot more bored ;) So thank you, all of you, and I hope to see you all around for a while yet.


  1. Well said Cassie. I have a twitter account but I'm among the 80% of users who aren't active. Trying to keep up with it and put stuff out there is something I find exhausting. However, I am so grateful that twitter feminism exists. I often find out what's been going on there via the blogs I read and yes, it does so much better than the mainstream media for so many things.

  2. I might take Murphy's complaints about "Twitter feminism" seriously if I'd read them in isolation. But knowing who she is, and knowing her history of verbal bullying and never shying away from encouraging a dogpile on those she doesn't like makes me see her post is nothing more than a massive exercise in hypocrisy. Her concern about incivility begins and ends with the hostility she and her friends are on the receiving end of.


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