If you’re a regular social media user, it can be easy to forget how public the internet really is. “Following” is a typical feature offered on social media sites, letting users choose who to see content from and creating a unique mini network visible on a personal home page. Facebook’s Newsfeed is a famous example of this, showing content that is populated by friends’ online activity. Sites like Twitter and Tumblr follow this same model, but somehow users are more cavalier with the types of things they share and say – perhaps because both networks function using user created pseudonyms. It’s unlikely to see someone post a scathing, detailed rant about their boss on Facebook because there is an understanding that it will be easily traced back to the author, but that same rant on Tumblr can theoretically only be traced back to the pseudonym. Although unique usernames do provide a certain level of anonymity, the vast audience of the internet remains the same. This can foster a false sense of security for users who are so comfortable in their self made networks that they let down guards they would otherwise keep in place.
The phenomenon of feeling like the only active person in a sea of strangers is also common; it is easy for users who don’t get much direct interaction with online peers to feel like they are operating in a void. Twitter user @whateverdude alludes to this during an outage period where the site was experiencing difficulties updating: “twitter is down, so for the next hour, i’ll be scrawling shit on post-its and tossing them out the window,” he writes. People who use their social media accounts like personal journals miss out on (or dismiss) the networking aspects of these websites and behave as if they are invisible. It might feel a bit like a modern, tech infused version of the old adage about a falling tree in an empty forest, except on the internet, someone is ALWAYS listening.
Earlier this year, a teenage girl on Tumblr posted an awkward picture of herself stuck standing in a stacked tower of classroom stools. “I was alone in the art room and had the thought ‘I wonder how many stools I can get over my head,'” she wrote. “Long story short i got stuck and the class walked in to me pathetically trying to wriggle out without being knocked over.” This simple, diary-like post suddenly started rapidly spreading, with other Tumblr users sharing it as a visual joke. What was originally relatively “private” and self-deprecating suddenly became mortifying, and the original poster reposted the photo with the note “stop reblogging this.” This made the joke even funnier, and the photo and its captions were spread even more. Pleading a third time, the poster writes, “Do you honestly think I want to be known as the ‘stuck in stools’ girl[?]”
In a piece for the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Nancy K. Baym and danah boyd speak on the precarious nature of networked publics, saying
“Most of the people engaging audiences and building identities and publics through social media are not […] fortunate. Some develop a sensibility through experience; others find themselves struggling to make sense of and manage their participation in networked publics; some misunderstand the consequences of their actions and make mistakes without realizing it.”
The only kind of mistake made by the teen on Tumblr was sharing too much and taking privacy for granted; the sudden visibility of her post led to embarrassment and therefore was a lesson in discretion. Concrete mistakes with real world implications are a dime a dozen for celebrities on Twitter, however. Posting a tweet from your phone takes mere seconds, and the 140 character limit forces users to make concise statements that can often come off as offensively blunt. The short form of Twitter also makes tweets extremely easy to misinterpret.
“the challenges of differing and sometimes unknown audiences can complicate self-presentation.” Baym and boyd continue. “Having to imagine one’s audience is a fundamental human problem rather than one distinctive to social media. But social media make it particularly challenging to understand “who is out there and when” and raises the potential for greater misalignment between imagined and actual audiences.”
This problem of forgetting about ones audience can be devastating to the carefully crafted images of public figures, giving fans insight into the potential true characters of their idols. In 2011, actor Ashton Kutcher tweeted “How do you fire Jo Pa? #insult #noclass as a hawkeye fan I find it in poor taste” in response to Iowa State football coach Joe Paterno being fired for covering up a sexual abuse scandal. Fans instantly criticized Kutcher for his insensitive remarks that prioritized athletics over abuse victims. Within a day, Kutcher’s Twitter account was officially taken over by his PR team as he had to scramble to apologize for his error. Apparently he did not know all the details of the news story and had tweeted his immediate thoughts without thinking – a costly mistake that changed some fans’ opinions of him indefinitely.
A more recent celebrity Twitter controversy involved Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift, and was also apparently due to carelessly quick tweeting. After releasing a popular but polarizing video featuring women of color for her song “Anaconda,” Nicki Minaj was hopeful her video would be nominated for a coveted MTV Video Music Award. When no nomination came, Minaj tweeted, ” If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year.” Taylor Swift, whose video had been nominated, directly responded to Minaj less than an hour later, saying “I’ve done nothing but love & support you. It’s unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your slot..” Swift’s tweet was immediately met with confusion from many fans and even Minaj herself, who responded directly to clarify her disappointment was not with Swift. Even more fans pointed out the irony of Swift’s mention of ‘pitting women against one another,’ since the very video that garnered her nomination depicted exactly that. Two days later, Swift apologized and admitted her mistake in thinking the jabs were directed at her, veritably admitting that her tweet was a mistake based upon a quick assumption. Again, this error proved to be costly as it colored fans’ perceptions of Swift and questioned whether or not her comments (and later, silence) were part of a bigger scheme to cause a stir. Authentic or not, Swift’s ironically eponymous initial action revealed she did not fully consider her audience or the implications of her post.
“As people engage in and reshape social media, they construct new types of publicness that echo but redefine publicness as it was known in unmediated and broadcast contexts,” Baym and boyd state. Even though the act of image sharing or tweeting can be performed alone in one’s home, the minute the content is posted it becomes public. Whether it is the security of a pseudonym or the general ease of sharing that makes users so cavalier with their content, blunders of all kinds will continue to be made online for all to see.
twitter is down, so for the next hour, i'll be scrawling shit on post-its and tossing them out the window
— Nate Walsh (@whateverdude) May 8, 2009