Today I unfollowed someone on Twitter and told them why, which is something I have never done before. I’ve unfollowed people before – because they are dull and tweet too much, because they are smart arses in love with their own cleverness, because they have political views with which I disagree or find offensive. But I’ve never bothered to tell anyone why before, mostly because it is my choice and my offence and really, they can keep on doing what they want and if I don’t follow them, then I have freed myself from that space and concern.
However, today I did bother. Today I thought it mattered.
Since I have been on Twitter I have generally found it a relatively safe space, which is interesting given how public a forum it is. Apart from the porn-bots, generally I have been free from sexual harassment, from unwanted innuendo, from those types of things which leave one feeling icky and a little violated. I guess this is because one has a strong degree of control; we can follow and unfollow at will, and in extreme cases block or protect our tweets. These things leave Twitter safer. For me on Facebook it has been exactly the same, again because I can control who is my friend. Interestingly with Twitter, despite the fact that I have not met in real life over half of those I follow, I have still managed to generally avoid bad places.
So it is slightly jarring when you find you are following someone who makes you feel uneasy, and yet you can’t quite bring yourself to unfollow. Having followers in common, led me to feel a degree of peer pressure – is it OK to exit from this? A bizarre reaction when these are virtual companions in a virtual world, but showing to me how easy it is for the kinds of externally imposed “rules” women are expected to behave by can embed themselves deeply. But, after a certain point, one has to draw the line. If women cannot empower themselves to speak against harrassment in an area like Twitter, where can they be? The final straw was when this older man made very pointed comments about a much younger woman’s (potential) sex life. Now, I don’t know whether she found it offensive, and that is a call for her, but I did. So I unfollowed.
I thought about it for a bit. I recognised that, if no one ever calls people on their behaviour, it is hardly fair to expect them to change. So I did, publicly amongst that peer group. I don’t necessarily expect that my statement will lead to a change in behaviour. But if I didn’t make the call, then there would definitely be no way I could expect a change. By doing it publicly, I risk subjecting myself to humourless-feminist types comments/unfollows, but that is besides the point. Interestingly so far, and reinforcing the fact that I like my Twitter community in general, the only two tweets in response have supported my comments. By making the call publicly, on the other hand, one hopes to empower other people to do the same thing – so call others on behaviour they find harassing, racist, sexist or homophobic and to unfollow others they find threaten the safety of their space.
I don’t propose Twitter vigilantism – seeking out those communities on Twitter which you are definitely going to find offensive and trying to reform them, really, it is probably not going to work. But if people enter into your space, or seek to enter into it, I think it is important to share with them the rules that you consider important.