When I took my current job at PCC almost three years ago, I gained so many things: work I love, amazing engaged colleagues, a mission I identify with, terrific students, and great faculty collaborators. One of the things I lost was sufficient professional development funding. I haven’t attended an out-of-state conference in almost three years, and while I miss my professional community, I wouldn’t trade this job for anything.
I was especially sad to miss the ACRL 2017 Conference in Baltimore, so I followed a lot of the twitter backchannel (#ACRL2017). While there were plenty of Twitter posts summarizing points from so many great presentations and keynotes as well as posts that showed me what the people I care about were up to, I was surprised by the amount of negativity, bitterness, and snark I was seeing. Some of it was around presenters (particularly about whether they should be presenting on their chosen topic and mostly targeted at white men), some of it around comments during the presentations themselves, and others around the Q&A sessions (particularly after Roxanne Gay’s keynote, but I saw quite a few other complaints from other sessions). It might just be that the people I follow make for a skewed sample, but I haven’t seen that level of negativity since Twitter first came on the scene and people didn’t know it was kind of awful to insult people while they were presenting.
Way back in 2010, I wrote about the value of Twitter at conferences and how the back-channel could just as easily become a hostile, negative, and distracting force as it could be a helpful force for connecting and sharing ideas. Back then, I shared the case of danah boyd‘s speech at the Web 2.0 Expo, which is a cautionary tale if there ever was one. In that case, the backchannel showed up on the screen behind the speaker, humiliating them in real time. At most conferences, the speaker or questioner doesn’t even know that they are being criticized, insulted, or made fun of on a publicly-accessible backchannel. Is that better? I try to consider, when live tweeting someone’s talk, how I would feel if what I wrote were projected on the screen behind them. I don’t always get it right, but I keep that in the forefront of my mind. That doesn’t mean that I never criticize via Twitter, but I try to think about how I frame it.
Erin Leach from Constructive Summer: Building the Unified Library Scene (one of my favorite blogs) wrote this about the Twitter backchannel at ACRL 2017:
I had a real love/hate relationship with the social media back channel at this event. I found myself using the back channel to say some things that weren’t very kind about situations and programs in which I found myself. I feel like everybody has to decide for themselves how they use social media, so this is more a self-critique than a hot take on the social media back channel writ large. At some point, in wanting to build a brand and cultivate a following, I lost track of my authentic voice in favor of something snarkier. And I don’t like how I feel when I do that. I think I need to spend time thinking critically about how I use my voice in online spaces.
I feel that. The desire to write something pithy or interesting on social media can definitely pull us towards being snarky and even mean. I’ve had moments where I’ve looked back at something I wrote on Twitter and cringe. I think Twitter can really bring out the worst in people because of the positive strokes we get from being snarky or joining in a pile-on. I appreciate Erin’s interest in reflecting on whether that is what she wants to put out there in the world. I’ve had many of the same thoughts about myself.
The awesome Zoe Fisher (who has one of my other favorite blogs) had a very valid criticism she shared on Twitter at ACRL blow up big time. She shared an appalling slide where some librarians called their students “our sweet dum dums” in response to looking at their work for assessment purposes. YIKES. I’m sure we’ve all complained about students or faculty members to our colleagues when we’re blowing off steam (though calling them dumb seems beyond the pale), but I truly cannot understand what would make a group of people think it was ok to put such a thing up on a slide. Anyways, Zoe shared it and there was an avalanche of tweeting about how horrible it was, then how one of the speakers (Erin) was running for ACRL Board and we shouldn’t vote for them. It was the typical social media pile-on, which I’ve written about before. I read it all last week and felt my usual discomfort with the pile-on, though I did think the language was egregious and deserved to be called out. What made me most uncomfortable was that no one confronted these people directly when something so offensive to students and ableist was shared. Days later, the woman running for ACRL Board was clued into the kerfuffle by a friend and posted a public apology on Twitter. Though I know Zoe had planned to contact Erin, I could very easily imagine a situation in which none of the speakers would ever find out that people were tarring and feathering them online and thus would never learn from the situation.
Some of the complaints I saw on Twitter were calling out microaggressions (generational, ableist, racial, etc.) or situations where people exercised their privilege in a way that reinforced existing power structures. It wasn’t just a sucky talk people were writing about. The biggest concern I have with that is that the message is rarely getting to the perpetrators like it fortunately did in Zoe’s case. Although it sometimes doesn’t feel that way, only a minority of our profession is on Twitter, which means that we’re usually preaching to the choir (or the echo chamber) when we post something like this.
That said, I totally understand that sometimes we’re not going to feel safe or capable of calling someone out. There are lots of reasons why people don’t confront things that are wrong and Kate Deibel articulates many of them here on Twitter. I have a really hard time holding my tongue in the moment and have often paid for it when speaking out against things I felt were wrong. I have totally been in the situation where people have said they agreed with me and had my back when I said I was going to bring an issue up in a meeting and then they sat silently making me look like a lone crank. I also suffer from social anxiety and am very much like George Costanza in this clip below — tongue-tied in the moment and then thinking of what to say after hours of rumination.
Whether we feel safe speaking out or not, I think it’s worth recognizing that the things we don’t like will continue to happen unless we educate the people doing them. This is especially true when it comes to things like microaggressions where people rarely even realize the wrongness and hurtfulness of what they’re saying.
And I think it’s more than just not feeling safe, especially for people who are in a position of privilege in a particular situation. Like so many things with social media, Tweeting about something we see that’s wrong can feel like “doing something.” And sometimes, indeed, calling it out can get someone else to act, but more often than not, it starts and ends with a Twitter storm. Certainly tweeting scratches an itch many of us have to be liked and be right. It positions us as someone who does right because we point out the wrong. We’re not like “those people who do that” because we point it out, so it distances us from people with whom we don’t want to be associated. It often results in a bunch of “I agree” and “you’re awesome”-type responses, which again hits the reward centers of our brain. It seems like a win-win, especially because the risk of putting ourselves out there in that way on Twitter is so much lower than actually saying something to the person/people you’re writing about.
And I say “us” here because I’ve done it too. I remember complaining about this guy some of us called “the mansplainer” at two successive Library Assessment Conferences because he would basically use the Q&A as an opportunity to demonstrate how much he knows and then (finally) ask a question that is designed to demonstrate that the speaker knows less and demean them. I complained about him on Twitter, but I never said anything to him. And I should have. Maybe he’s just a twerp who would write off my criticism or maybe he would realize that we all see right through him and would stop doing it. But he’s not going to learn anything if people like me just keep talking about him on the backchannel. It was a fail on my part.
In her blog post, Zoe quoted something valuable Roxanne Gay said in her keynote: “‘I don’t want your shame,’ she said. ‘I want your fight.” Zoe meant that in terms of the people who wrote the “dum dum” comment taking action to be on the side of their students. I want to see that fight come out when people see someone doing wrong in a conference presentation (or really anywhere). Especially when we are in a situation where we have privilege, we are being a good ally when we use that privilege to call out people for microaggressions against or disrespect of people with less privilege. It might be uncomfortable for us to do that publicly, but consider how much more uncomfortable it is for the target of the microaggression or disrespect. This post on Allies and Microaggressions describes what it feels like to experience microaggressions when their “allies” don’t speak up until after the fact. We need to not just point out on Twitter the sucky things people do, but to actually confront the perpetrators publicly about it when we can. A whole lot of people complained about the Q&A sessions at the conference: maybe they should have been seen as opportunities to confront speakers about issues with their presentations.
It would be lovely if this were all clear-cut, but it isn’t. It would be great if we could just say Twitter=bad or suggesting people directly call out offensive things=tone policing. Twitter sometimes can be a great force for good and change. It can also bring out the absolute worst in really nice people because of how snark, meanness, and cattiness is rewarded. Twitter can help bring to light bad actors. Twitter can also sometimes make people think they’re making a difference as an ally when they’re not really being one in real life. Tone policing is bad. But so is silence when you have privilege and someone you know who doesn’t is being made the target of a microaggression. We’re not going to be perfect all the time. We’re going to get it wrong sometimes. But I think recognizing the importance of confronting wrong in a way that educates the person who did wrong and encourages change is the key. For someone like the incredible Emily Drabinski (who is active on Twitter and was confronted there for something she said in a conference session) that might be a fine way to deliver the message. But especially when the things someone said may have hurt people in the audience, calling them out publicly in the session both educates them about the wrong they did and makes the injured parties feel supported. We won’t always be able to do this, of course, but let’s never stop wanting to do better.