How Twitter Reflects the Themes of Our Society

by | March 17, 2012
filed under Feminism

This was originally posted at A Nerdy Feminist. Cross-posted with permission of the author.

Let me set this all out from the get-go: I love social media. I’m an early adopter and heavy user of the biggest platforms. I was Facebooking it back in late 2004 when you had to request your college to be added to the network and I’ve been a regular tweeter since 2008. In fact, I’ve racked up almost 6000 tweets. I’m even into Tumbling now. All of this is just to demonstrate that the following is not me hating on social media or fearing progress. (We know how I feel about that.)

Besides, Twitter has been proven to be hugely influential in some really big things, like the Arab Spring, as well as many other grassroots, activist movements including Occupy. It also regularly allows me to connect with feminists from all over the country and world, making the theory feel united, my thoughts more widely informed, and allowing me to be supported and lend support.

But the fact of the matter is that for all the good Twitter can do, it is still is a direct reflection of the “-isms” that still exist in our society. A vast majority of its users are not necessarily engaging in activism, but rather sharing “funny” quips or personal thoughts. Unfortunately, racist, heterosexist, classist, and sexist hashtags often are amongst the top trending topics. So much so, that as a self-preservation tactic (read: I don’t want to get pissed off all the time) I’ve stopped regularly looking at them…which is a damn shame, since it could keep me from knowing about the great stuff I just referenced.

Despite my recent decision to ignore trending topics, I took a little glance last night and, of course, one of them was problematic.

#ImTheTypeofGirlfriend

But more on that particular trending topic in a moment.

After all the “-isms” I’ve seen on Twitter, I knew I couldn’t be the only person who is observing this situation with disgust. So I did a bit of Googling and came across some great thoughts from Sarah Jackson at Bad Reputation in which she both chronicles the sexism on Twitter and asks WHY is this happening? In the second piece, she comes to a few conclusions which I think are particularly valid. She writes:

…the web is used as much to police and reinforce gendered ideas of appropriate behaviour as it is to undermine them. Social networks, it turns out, are simply another arena in which to enact and consolidate gender identity. Like the bus, like the pub.

And a big part of successfully Being A Man or Being A Woman is policing the behaviour of others. By laying down the rules you’re letting everyone know you understand them. In fact you’re an expert. By calling out someone else on their inappropriate behaviour (for example, women that are ‘loud’ – how unfeminine!) you’re picking up gender points for yourself. And appropriate gender behaviour points win prizes!

It’s not just about putting women in their place, it’s about keeping men in line as well. If you can do both that makes you the Manliest Man of all, and king of all you survey…What I think is happening here is that a large number of people are using a new medium to do exactly what an even larger number of people have already been doing for centuries, millennia, even. What’s different is that the isolated conversations are being collected and shared on a global platform.

So in Jackson’s estimation Twitter is simply displaying the gender policing that occurs in our “IRL” lives as the nature of the medium allows us to click a hashtag and see it all laid out there by thousands of people in a very traceable, tangible way. And it’s true! With in person communication, someone will make a sexist joke and you cringe. But you can’t then freeze his words in the air, click on the offensive words and see every other time the same tasteless joke as been made.With Twitter you can.

And it facilitates the participation of so many more people. Using the face-to-face joke example again, in that context, only the people directly around the guy hear the comment and either choose or not choose to participate. On Twitter, anyone can see the comment and choose or not choose to participate. And when celebrities (who have millions of followers) are among the people opting in for the offensive-fest, the trending topic takes off even more.

Basically, Twitter kiiiiinda gives bigots the opportunity for a platform and following.

But to my most recent experience: Often these hashtags show internalized misogyny as well. Women frequently participate in the sexist tags as much as men. Or with last night, the trending topic I came across was #ImTheTypeofGirlfriend. This statement isn’t inherently sexist, but how it played out was interesting. Here are some of the examples I came across…

Again, the sexism here isn’t as flagrant as other hashtags (#rulesforgirls, #ihatefemaleswho) but the underlying messages include:

The overall theme here is one which I am quite familiar with from “back in my day” when there was no Twitter, but the same old mentality prevailed. I saw it in the girls who said they didn’t like other girls or didn’t have female friends. I saw it in the girls who would try to compete with you over boys, even when you didn’t know you were in the competition. I saw it in girls who put down femininity. I saw it in girls who would drop all their plans with you if their boyfriend called or who you’d only see if he was busy in the first place. Yes, whether on Twitter today or as a teen in late 90’s/early 00’s suburban Indiana the message is the same:

“I’m the cool girl. The one you can hang with. I’m not like those others. I’m different. I’m special. I’m better.”
This is as old as time itself. Because femininity is by default lesser than masculinity, some girls seek to get ahead by distancing themselves from “how women are.” And sadly, it works, or it would have died out by now.Make no mistake, the problem isn’t Twitter. Rather, Twitter has just become an easy way to identify these things as they happen in real time and stands as a sad mirror to our reality, full of all the “-isms.”
I guess I can take hope in the fact that when I click on these trending topics, I almost always see people who have hijacked the thread and are using it to promote better ideas. (Like #ImTheTypeofGirlfriend who won’t put up with bullshit <–I like her.)So there IS that. And the Arab Spring stuff!

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