As the world seems to lunge from one crisis to another in 2017 here's an important reminder about taking a stand when lines are clearly crossed.
by Anna Caig
The greatest trick twitter ever pulled was convincing the world that if you’re not on there, then you’re silent.
The #WomenBoycottTwitter day was held on 13 October 2017 to protest the social networking site’s lack of transparency, and apparent lack of consistency, in dealing with abuse. Prompted by the suspension of actress Rose McGowan’s account in the wake of the allegations that she, and countless other women, made against Harvey Weinstein, the boycott aimed to show twitter that there are limits to what women, men and organisations will tolerate. We won’t stick around no matter what.
My own love affair with twitter began in 2008. It was a magical portal to a world of geeky wonder where I found people who love the same things I do, no matter how niche. And since those heady days, it has become invaluable as a channel for professional communicators, and seen a spectacular growth in visibility and influence probably typified most obviously by its use by the current President of the United States.
But it is a business. And while in many ways, twitter seems more successful than ever, this is a business with a flatlining number of users and no imminent road to profitability. Maybe, just maybe, twitter needs us more than we need it. It is only as powerful as the number of active users it has, and the information they share and consume. This is a business that is constantly developing, changing and tinkering with its operating model. And we don’t have to be passive observers of these changes.
I hate to break it to you, but much as you may think twitter wants you for your perfect meme choices, your hilarious puns and your erudite live tweeting of that cabinet meeting, it doesn’t. It wants you because you are a pair of eyes attached to a wallet. And, in the case of professional communicators, it wants us because we potentially attract many more pairs of eyes attached to many more wallets (maybe some of that attraction is down to meme choices - I’ll give you that!)
Impressions and engagements are the currency here. You may be critical, angry, and demand change, but as long as you do so via the medium of twitter, you are still consuming their product and rewarding them with this currency.
Boycotts have been a powerful tool for social change since 411 BC when Lysistrata organised a sex boycott that saw the women of Greece deny their husbands and lovers any action until they negotiated peace in the Peloponnesian War. From the Montgomery bus boycott to the NikeWatch campaign, they target a business’s bottom line, and crucially its reputation, as a way of affecting change.
A couple of years ago a particular supermarket was selling doctor fancy dress costumes labelled for boys, and nurse fancy dress costumes labelled for girls. Both honourable professions that I have enormous admiration for. But both open to either gender. So, I joined a boycott. I, and many other people, wrote to this supermarket telling them I wouldn’t shop there again until the situation changed. And it wasn’t long before the fancy dress labelling policy was revised.
I can’t imagine this campaign would have been as successful if we’d all held our protests in that same supermarket, buying stuff while we were there, telling anyone who wanted to listen to us that they could only do so by coming to the supermarket and buying stuff too.
Your absence can be as powerful a thing as your presence. It can be hard to remember this in a world where we instagram our breakfasts, our children’s every move is on facebook, and we’re not sure if exercising even counts if we don’t broadcast it on Strava.
While it is true that many communications services operate on a traded model these days, as public sector communications professionals we largely still live in a very different world to the profit and loss, shareholder is king, ethos that much of the private sector does. We must have open arms, open ears, and listen to what everyone is saying. We may forget that, for a business whose success is related to the number of pairs of eyes attached to wallets that come and spend time there, the biggest impact can sometimes be made when people just walk away.
But #WomenBoycottTwitter was about how abuse is dealt with. And it would be wrong not to acknowledge that silence is a pernicious thing when it comes to abuse. The last thing we should be is silent. We should shout from the rooftops, and ensure that we do as much as we can to tackle it. But there are many channels through which to do this. Not just twitter.
There were reasons for not participating that I have a lot of respect for. I have read the views of women of colour who didn’t boycott because the protest was formed without consideration of their viewpoints, and because they haven’t felt the solidarity asked of them in this instance from white women in the past. That is a perspective that should make us all think about where our blind spots are.
But I was troubled by the more general objection to the boycott, expressed by some, that coming off twitter for a day is the same as being silent. I get the symbolism, I really do, but we are consumers of this business’s services. We can take our custom, and our noise, elsewhere. If one communications channel becomes so indispensable to us that we will tolerate increasingly unacceptable behaviour, and stay no matter what, what does that remind you of?
There does also seem to be, on occasion, a reluctance in the public sector to do something we’re not certain will be met with universal approval. I am all for a bit of tried and tested best practice, but social media moves so fast that if you wait for something to be fail-safe, the world has often moved on. I work hard to show my team that, particularly when it comes to digital communications, it’s okay to try something and fail; better that than be boring.
So, I joined the boycott. And the organisation I work for joined the boycott. Not because we were certain it would be effective, or because we had to, but because it felt like the right thing to do at that moment. Because it is possible to influence the changing social media landscape. As communications professionals, we spend an enormous amount of our time in that landscape, and we are not merely bystanders. We do have a role to play in shaping the way it develops.
Early indications are that the boycott has prompted twitter to consider ‘more aggressive’ rules around abuse, and more consistent enforcement of those rules. It seems that, even in this world of constant presence, absence can still be a powerful thing.
Now, let me get back to my memes, puns and geeky wonder.
Anna Caig is the External Affairs Manager at Sheffield City Council
image via Khell Center