The #TwitterEthics Manifesto

You don’t need to speak for us -- we are talking.

by Dorothy Kim & Eunsong Kim on April 7th, 2014

We enter Twitter because we believe it’s a medium that’s not hostile to women of color writers, thinkers, and conversations — but perhaps we should reconsider.

Perhaps each time we log in, we should re-read Twitter’s privacy agreement, their legally binding contract. Perhaps we should remind each other and ourselves that Twitter is a closed, private corporation, with corporate dreams and nightmares. Perhaps we should remind each other that Twitter’s model is the antithesis of open access, creative commons, feminist, Marxist, queer — take your pick. Perhaps we should remind each other that such financial and structural impediments should motivate us to converse elsewhere — to build our own platform or to inhabit a platform that functions beyond mere profit.

But most of us enter because it is a designated ‘mediated public space’. danah boyd writes that “Social network sites are the latest generation of ‘mediated publics’ – environments where people can gather publicly through mediating technology. In some senses, mediated publics are similar to the unmediated publics with which most people are familiar – parks, malls, parking lots, cafes, etc.”

A french cafe scene, with many tables close together with different parties packed into the sidewalk seating area.

Public space. Cropped and filtered, CC-BY via zoetnet

Pre-existing social networks are spaces we go to for public conversation. The dream of building our own structures complements the decolonization of the public spaces that we are invested in.

Lately, the hostility of Twitter has become even more apparent. The emotional and intellectual labor of women of color is being casually appropriated/borrowed to benefit and support the narratives of established journalists writing for large platforms. The work and organization of WOC on Twitter has been taken by journalists and turned into mainstream stories, news articles, Buzzfeed listicles, and more — without the writers or activists being asked, credited, cited, or paid. As Tina Vasquez has insightfully reported in “What’s Missing from Journalists’ Tactic of Snagging Stories from Twitter? Respect.”, this is compounded because so many of the journalists who write about Twitter are male and/or white.

In fact, Vasquez points out that when discussing the sensitive topic of what women wore when they were raped — a discussion that was meant to counter the idea that women “asked for it” by what they wore — “the only person to respectfully cover…[this] was The Root’s Jenée Desmond-Harris.” Vasquez identifies as a Latina and Desmond-Harris is an African American female journalist. Considering the paucity of minority and/or women writers in mainstream newsrooms, it should not shock that race and gender affects the quality of reporting. Other mainstream news sources, like Buzzfeed, just “fucked everything up.”.

Mainstream media perpetuates a litany of such moments. When this co-optation and abuse is contested, liberal democrats like Hamilton Nolan tell us to chill out. In his article “Twitter is Public,” Nolan patronizes women of color feminists that have taken up debates around Twitter harvesting. Only he understands the definition of public and how Twitter functions. He assumes patriarch duties, explaining to us that the world is unfair and that we must reread our contract with Twitter. If you want to stay in the public sphere shut up, he says with benevolent nonchalance.You can leave and go elsewhere, he repeats, rolling his eyes.

Gosh, we’re so silly and stuff. Thanks Hammy.

How could we forget that “public” means free WOC labor, the upliftment of corporate profiteering? That “public” means exploitation is fair game — those with the bigger tools get to wildly appropriate the language of others for their own private and personal gains. Public means white property laws; public means not safe for women of color; public means not safe for marginalized voices — public means that we must be grateful to exist in their sphere.

Disrupting Fordian Hierarchies of Profit

Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence, published as a print book (NYU Press, 2011) and through open-access peer review in 2009 (Media Commons Press) opens up the question of knowledge formation, credit, and idea access. Though she is primarily thinking about the academic publishing enterprise and how academic knowledge is owned, reviewed, and disseminated — like a Ford factory assembly line — her points also fit in thinking about non-academic digital labor and digital writing.

She writes: “Digital networks, as structures that facilitate interaction, communication, and interconnection, will require us to think differently about what it is we’re doing as we write. As the example of the blog might suggest, communities best engage with one another around writing that is open rather than closed, in process rather than concluded.

There has been a push and pull in academic communication about the different systems of knowledge formation and dissemination. Academic presses — like many of our contemporary media companies — cling to old Fordian models of knowledge ownership, production, and dissemination.

Owned, reviewed, and disseminated is also a perfect way to describe the “Twitter to Buzzfeed to Mainstream” media model. Tweets are appropriated by Buzzfeed journalists for their smartsnark articles, then mainstream media platforms come to further monetize Buzzfeed’s scavenger hunts. This cycle repeats.

Fitzpatrick’s work explains and advocates for a different future: the planned obsolescence of the Fordian model in academic knowledge production. For a future that will involve collaborative production, distributed access, and constant revision and reformation of knowledge. In other words, the end of fixed, sellable products (i.e. a book that has ended) and instead the imagining of knowledge environments, communication, and feedback loops where knowledge is constantly rethought, revised, reinvented.

Twitter was imagined as a micro-blogging platform. In its own words, the founders of Twitter have described their goals as focusing on the “user experience” organized around “serendipity.” However, more recently it has been remarked by Dan Farber that “Twitter is basically a mass-scale marketing platform, in which every tweeter is a marketer and every follower a set of eyeballs and a potential re-marketer.”

A cutout of the twitter bird logo, with white chalk outlining it.

Twitter logo, cropped and filtered, CC-BY via eldh

However, the driving force has been about “interaction, communication, and interconnection” amongst its users. Thus, as an open system, its platform has recently shown how collaborative engagement, learning, and conversations have pulsed as a dynamic process that has produced hashtag conversations, political action, and WOC vocalization. We’re thinking about #solidarityisforwhitewomen started by Mikki Kendall; #EconomicViolence originated by Andy Smith and @prisonculture; #ChangeTheName #NotYourMascot by Dani (@xodanix3), Jacqueline Keeler, and other Native feminists; and #NotYourAsianSideKick by Suey Park. The conversations generated by these hashtags and their users have vibrated throughout the web, and are still ongoing. While twitter can be innovative and surprising as an activist tool, contradictions have emerged from Twitter the medium, Twitter the corporation, and Twitter the Public.

Particularly, as Suey Park & David Leonard have discussed in “In Defense of Twitter Feminism”, we have noticed the growing trend of unabashedly harvesting WOC intellectual labor for both journalistic and academic study. Trudy (Gradient Lair) has written prolifically about the plagiarism her site and her intellectual labor have witnessed in her post “I Could Not Be Any More Tired of Academia and I Am Not Even A Part of It.” She writes that, “I have not gotten any better at dealing with the demand that I should be ‘flattered’ by people who ‘chose’ to exploit me over anyone else that they could have ‘chosen.’ ”

Journalists, academics and mainstream media platforms that quote out of context, quote without permission, or plagiarize are not performing acts of kindness — they are abusing their powers as gatekeepers. They are positioning themselves as the managers of relevant information, and disregarding the informational systems and dialogues that are organically taking place.

In order to reject the normalization of this kind of exploitation, we must rethink the continuation of this Fordian model of knowledge production where the “owner/author” –who is often not the original content creator — gets the credit for the “product” being sold on the marketplace. These are old and conservative approaches to business and knowledge creation, yet these two different models (Ford vs. Planned Obsolescence) appear to constantly butt heads. Even in smarter business circles this older, Fordian model has been superseded. Yet, corporations like Twitter seem unable to absorb that shift completely in their business model.

Twitter the corporation runs on Ford Factory logic; Twitter the tool can be revolutionary.

The Triple Bottom-Line and the Circular Economy

The Economist neatly explains a disruption in the Fordian logics of production, assembly, sale and consumption (and of course, the added points of waste).

We must complicate the linear product and the dream of the assembly line model. For example, the idea of the “Triple Bottom Line” was first coined by John Elkington 20 years ago. The idea argues that companies “should be preparing three different bottom lines:

  1. profit–the more traditional idea of a corporate profit model;
  2. people–how socially responsible a company is to its stakeholders and workers;
  3. planet–it’s environmental responsibility.”

In order to do business in the new economic world, a company should take the Triple Bottom Line into account in order to think about their business model as an integrated process. All three lines — profit, people, planet — function in a system that interacts and works with each other. So the question is: how does Twitter think about their business modeling in relation to their distributive platform? For Twitter, striving for the Triple Bottom Line would create a business model fueled by process rather than linear product. Such a model would privilege the generation of ideas –particularly radical rather than just capitalist ideas — as its main objective. This privileging would ensure circular movement within the company. The process of thinking through monetary profits, social responsibility to people, and sustainability for the world should mean that Twitter would be functioning in a way that thinks about all these three strands entwined together.

How does monetary profit intermix when social responsibility to people (both workers and users) intertwine with environmental sustainability? As Antony Kim (leading environmental architect, Schmidt-McArthur Fellow) argues, “sustainability is a process not a product.” One shouldn’t in fact think about “sustainability” or any of these terms “social responsibility” or even “profit” as a singular and product-driven solution. In other words, slapping solar panels on the Twitter office building does not make it more “sustainable.” Rather, it is part of the many systematic things a corporation can do to achieve sustainability. Sustainability is “a moving target,” very much like “social responsibility” to people and “monetary profit” are moving targets.

Profit, People, and Planet

Profit, people and planet are part of an ongoing process that must involve collaborative work — and we must flatten hierarchies to achieve our constantly evolving, systematic goals.

If Twitter commits to these intertwined goals, they should continually be considering how the intellectual output and the energy and labor of their users must be compensated and remain sustainable and ethical. As Lisa Nakamura has written, invisible WOC labor is behind the digital profits of companies like Apple. Likewise, Twitter’s future profits are particularly lucrative to international business commerce compared to Facebook and other social media sites due to its broader and more diverse demographic of higher African American and Latino users.

Yet, there is no distribution of this wealth down to its invisible WOC laborers.

Profit, Archives, and Methodology

If these are your records–where are your memories???

The Twitter Corporation is a leading innovator of digital archiving. At any time, users can download their personal tweet history. The Library of Congress is storing all of our public tweets and Twitter’s sophisticated search functions have streamlined internet sleuthing. Their archiving system is one of the most futuristic and elite programs in existence–they are redefining how to archive the internet.

A large volume of telecom wires in the ceiling of a cement corridor in the Library of Congress basement.

The Library of Congress Basement. Cropped and filtered, CC-BY via scobleizer

This should concern us for various reasons, but specifically because:

  • This archive system is like Twitter: it is closed, private, profit driven, and top-down.
  • The archive system follows an ancient model of provenance/collecting: the objects belong to the purchaser, The Man With The Papers.
  • This private, closed archive will have a significant importance in the future–it will be a constant source of data mining possibilities (and Twitter the corporation will have no incentive not to gatekeep according to its politics and desires).

Just like the Fordist model of production needing to be eradicated, there is no reason for Twitter the corporation to abide by ancient archival methods. We challenge Twitter to innovate beyond its sleek technological updates–we challenge it to innovate its definitions and methods.

Scan of a vintage photo of Henry Ford riding in a Model-T car, which is emblazoned Fifteen Millionth Car.

Cropped and filtered, Photo CC-BY via William Creswell

Alternatives to Singular Provenance

Twitter doesn’t have to look far. Postcolonial archivists have been coming up with innovative solutions to singular provenance. There are several alternative possibilities. For example, just to list a few possibilities:

1. Parallel provenance

This conceptualizes the necessity for stories/process/experience to be centered as authors, by politicizing and variegating the notion of origins.

2. Co-creatorship

By deploying postcolonial and native studies methodologies, co-creatorship pushes to acknowledges both ‘keeper of the record’ and the ‘storyteller’ as authors. (Chris Hurley, Anne J. Gilliland)

3. Centering provenance as ethnicity

Here, the object is located with whom it is most useful–centering the subject of the archive as the author, rather than conquerors/managers or record keeper. (Joel Wurl)

But maybe this is all too revolutionary for Twitter the Fordist Factory.

Archivist Chris Hurley writes, “In cyberspace, the essence of recordkeeping will not lie in the management of digital objects but in narratives about formation, function, and process.” To this effect, we would like to decenter the author, product, archive, profit-linear progression and reimagine a digital future in which the Triple Bottom Line and planned obsolescence are the angle of Twitter’s functionality. There would be flattened hierarchies of production, sharing, citation, and labor to create a different digital future.

We have written a #TwitterEthics manifesto. We want to reimagine the intersection (and the methodologies to inspect) of race, gender, labor and the digital future in both journalism and academia.

The #TwitterEthics Manifesto

This is based on a collected open twitter conversation asked to the community about #TwitterEthics.

What should the twitter ethics be in journalism and academic research? What are the ethics for journalists and academic researchers on twitter? What should journalists and academics do to respect all WOC feminists? What do we need to do to make sure we are not exploiting intellectual labor and property? How do we strive to be good allies?

Eunsong (@clepsydras) tweeted that “too often, woc ideas go uncited–or become situated as ‘raw material’ for appropriation.” The bare minimum as @SonminBong, @sharmanifowler, and @jazzycrayon discussed is credit, citation, attribution. But we should go further than the bare minimum: both academics and journalists should ask each individual user on Twitter for consent. They should explain the context and the usage of their tweets.

But these are just very small baselines that replicate the already exploitative terrain of Twitter’s interaction with old media. The more useful paradigm is to think about disrupting this model entirely. If we want Twitter to be a space for conversation/ideas, we have to be aware of the uneven distribution of power positions.

If we want to transform the space to what we want it to be, we must disrupt this system. We must consider a methodology that eschews the exploitation of digital labor and the structural violence enacted towards WOC feminist digital bodies.

For starters we can all:

1. Reject the object-oriented approach

Don’t turn WOC into “objects of analysis” – refuse the subject/object divide. As explained in “Gawking at Rape Culture,” WOC narratives and voices become quickly commodified without consent or permission. The women are objects to be gazed upon and studied. The journalist appropriates, rewrites, and circulates her story — and in this process, becomes the speaking subject. A different way to think about the subject/object is to look at the work of Karen Barad who flattens the subject-object hierarchy from a vertical top to bottom relation to one that is horizontal and ever shifting, such as Meeting the Universe Halfway. Her theories of entanglements especially in relation to gendered computer programming reimagine subject/object relationships in a distributive platform system.

2. Recognize that journalists, reporters, media companies, professors are not leaders of the analysis — there is no bird’s eye view.

There is no hierarchical system and linear model of production. Instead production, analysis, discussion must be decentered.

As a medium, Twitter is decentered–that’s why gatekeeper journalists and conservative luddites continue to warn us about the dangers of the messy, uncontrollable, fragmented nature of twitter conversations.

For decentering hierarchies, we can also look to models of publication. In European Others: Queering Ethnicity in Postnational Europe, Fatima El-Tayeb describes Audre Lorde’s interactions with black feminists in Germany. When approached by publishers interested in translating her work, Lorde convinced them instead to anthologize Afro-German female narratives. As a collection of stories and interviews, from women 17 to 70, El-Tayeb writes that since its inception, Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out has become the key Afro-German text. This example illustrates that while authoritative voices are important to our cultural milieus, sometimes what culture needs most are emergent narratives. A way to make this happen is for the Authoritative Figure/acknowledged writer/centered subject to step aside and listen. And when necessary, partake in ethical anthologizing of what has been said.

3. Move away from the pyramid to a circular system that values process over product.

For journalistic and academic enterprise, this means sharing and shuffling the analysis feedback loop so it allows folks to ask questions to the data themselves. Twitter the tool is not a pyramid, it’s circular. Twitter’s model makes an authoritative position impossible for anyone who operates within its framework. There is no product for Twitter. It deals in information exchange, it is foundationally process-based and therefore: circular. Why should there be one gatekeeping access point at the top (the current approach journalists have taken, that Twitter the corporation practices)? Instead, we must have multiple points of entry, access, and distribution (rhizomatic). This is actually a model in folklore studies, but is a rare methodology in most academic research.

4. Allow for a multiplicity of views.

We must reject the idea of “expert” with regard to WOC Twitter. If we believe in the value of a multiplicity of views and narratives, then the system, the analysis, the work should allow for a plurality of views. Thus, #TwitterEthics is about radical scholarly and journalistic practice that decenters hierarchies by rejecting the idea of expert. Instead, it asks for the development of co-creatorships, co-authorships. It should collaborate with Twitter users to write their narratives, their analyses, and map their activisms and conversations.

5. Academics should move towards radical research systems that circulate and open dialogue up to participatory modes.

This is something the digital humanities particularly have been able to push for with new radical pedagogy and methodologies. Research projects can strive to structure work to break and decenter credit, analysis, and commentary in order to share and spread it through distributed networks. This subverts the top-down, gatekeeping, pyramid model (please see the work of @adelinekoh and @roopikarisam #DHPoco on both academic labor and study and archive work).

Radical Epistemologies

We can’t move forward to new tech with old methodology — this is a recipe to maintain old power.

We must rethink and consider more radical epistemologies that will push forward an ongoing cycle of consent, credit, citation, and participation.

Twitter, you are planning your own obsolescence by running on the Ford Factory Logic, by keeping us out of your archives, by turning our language into property, and making it acceptable for us to be exploited by journalists.

In the end, the work, the credit, the compensation, and the view need to be a shared, collaborative process. Twitter and New Media journalism, the internet and technology involves all of us. The voices on the platform are multiple, collective, dissenting, singular, and loud. You don’t need to speak for us–we are talking. Cite us, ask us to write, get our permission.