Twitter is a public space, says Gawker, and conversations you have in public spaces are public. You want private? Take it to email, or text, or phone.
Seems legit. But apply this rule to the offline world, and it falls apart pretty quickly. Don’t want me butting into the conversation you’re having in a coffee shop? Take it to a hotel. Don’t want me snarking on that phone call about your cancer diagnosis? Talk quieter. Don’t want me putting your reaction to the car accident that killed your kid on YouTube? Grieve when you get home.
The reality is that the boundary between private acts and public acts is blurry, and always has been. People do private stuff in public all the time, and while we often have a legal right to violate the privacy of those moments, mostly we don’t, because it’s understood that we shouldn’t. It’s understood that it’s a jerky thing to do.
Is Twitter different? Maybe. In some ways it is. Certainly it’s generally simpler to snoop on people’s private conversations on Twitter than it is in meatspace — simpler not just because it’s easy to do, but also because it’s easy to do without getting caught. And while tweets aren’t more public than a loud conversation on a movie theater line, they are more massively public — they’re potentially visible to a lot more people.
Only potentially, though. To make them actually visible beyond their intended audience requires action — someone other than the speaker has to do something. Someone has to search or stalk or retweet. Unless they do, the actual audience is the intended audience, or some subset of it.
As someone who sometimes butts in on strangers’ Twitter conversations, and who sometimes writes about the stuff he reads on Twitter, the question I ask before hitting send isn’t whether I have a legal right to jump in (I assume I do, though I’ve never given the issue much thought) but whether the people I’m barging in on have an expectation of privacy, or might.
To see what I mean, let’s take it back to the offline world for a minute.
I speak on campuses and at student conferences pretty often. (I’m on my way to one as I write this, as it happens.) When I get up behind a podium at an event like that, what I say is presumptively public. If there’s a reporter there, what I say is fair game for quoting without permission or notice. Folks can and do take photos, even video, and put them up online without asking.
But what if I go out for dinner with some of my hosts afterwards? What if a student newspaper reporter happens to be along? Can they record our conversation without my knowledge? Can they quote what I say without asking, without even identifying themselves? My gut tells me no. Not, again, as a matter of law. Just as a matter of basic decency. A casual dinner isn’t a public event in the way a speech is, even if there was an open invitation to attend. Both are public, but one is more public than the other, and I’d consider it really inappropriate for someone to report on a meal the way they’d report on a speech.
And here’s something interesting: I absolutely wouldn’t have a problem with someone who was at the dinner tweeting something I said. I think that’s because the audience for such a tweet strikes me as semi-private in the same way as the dinner itself — you can talk to your friends about what happens at dinner, so why shouldn’t you use low-volume social media to do the same thing?
I could go on like this indefinitely, laying out hypotheticals and trying to tease out the underlying principles. But that wouldn’t be particularly helpful, because ultimately I’m not trying to establish rules. There isn’t consensus on this stuff, and there isn’t going to be. Twitter is a public space where people sometimes have private or semi-private conversations, and sometimes inserting yourself into those conversations is sometimes going to be okay and sometimes it’s going to be a real jerk move.
So how can you avoid being a jerk in such situations? I can think of a few issues to bear in mind:
Is the public you’re bringing the material to much larger than the one it was intended for? Is it culturally distant from the original? Is it likely to be hostile? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, take a moment to mull before signal-boosting.
Is the person you’re boosting a public figure? A longtime tweeter? An adult? How many followers do they have? How much information do they share about themselves in their Twitter profile? What do you know about their expectations of privacy?
Is the material you’re thinking about broadcasting a goofy joke or something more personal? Most people will be a lot happier to see their Divergent macro on Buzzfeed than their ugly opinions about their grandmother’s birthday party.
What are the chances that the person you’re shoving up on the soapbox will suffer because of what you’ve done? Are they likely to be stalked or flamed? Could they lose a job or get kicked out of their house or flunk a class? Might you be sharing information with the world that they haven’t shared with their parents?
Why are you sharing this stuff? Is it for their benefit? Is it to embarrass them? Is it for page-clicks and page-clicks alone? What’s the goal? What are you trying to achieve?
Do you have permission to share the material? Would you likely get it if you asked? If you do, or would, have consent, is that consent grounded in the same understanding of the potential consequences of publication that you have?
These are the kind of questions I ask myself when I’m deciding whether to retweet something, or to write about something I’ve stumbled across on social media. None of them are decisive in isolation, and most of them don’t lend themselves to simple rule-making. But taken together they give me a sense of whether what I’ve got in mind is justifiable.
And yeah, I use a similar calculation when I’m evaluating the decisions that other authors make. And while I can respect people who weigh the answers differently than I do, if you’re not engaging with issues like these at all? Yeah, I kind of think you’re a jerk.