Safe spaces


Squaring the circle on dealing with nasty posts, and the importance of social communities

This is something I’ve been pondering over for some time, but some people making threats of violence to some of my female followers – along with the recent treatment of local (to me) academic Professor Mary Beard, makes this post timely.

In September 2012 I took Puffles along to a gathering of Westminster Skeptics with a panel of the great and the good on the liberal left of social media. It was quite surreal to see so many people that I normally only see on Twitter all in the same place in real life. Yet despite the gathering of some of the most experienced of social media users, we could not come up with a solution on how to deal with social media trolls and haters – of which the panel had long experience of dealing with them. They all agreed that trolling and hate was a real problem with social media, but were also extremely uncomfortable with the state/nation states ‘censoring’ social media at the same time. As an institution, the audience as a whole did not trust it.

So how do you deal with the problem?

Well, law enforcement authorities are already taking action – irrespective of whether social media users like it or not. This is both civil and criminal – thinking those who have had action taken against them for libellous tweets to those that have been jailed for things like contempt of court to inciting racial hatred. There’s also reporting accounts to the platform hosts. However, the scale of activity on the likes of Twitter and Facebook is out of all proportion to the number of people that are employed by the companies tasked with dealing with breaches of their rules. Twitter’s are here, while Facebook’s are here – note the ones under 3) and 4) in particular for the latter.

At a personal level, I’ve traditionally gone with the line of “Do not feed the trolls” <- This was the first blogpost I wrote trying to address this issue. In recent days, I spotted a trend where more women in particular are choosing to speak out. Essentially calling out the haters for what they post.

My community is a friendly and supportive one

I’ve chosen to make it that way – and having a dragon onside kind of helps! Both the breadth and depth of my social community has helped strengthen its resilience when individuals get targeted. One of the first things I do when someone young and in particular, female starts following and interacting is to introduce them to other female followers with similar interests. It’s not just a dragon fairy that you’re following and engaging with, it’s a friendly and supportive community.

Furthermore, over the past couple of years that I have been active on Twitter, I have arranged numerous offline meetups, which have allowed lots of people to meet those they tweet to, for the first time. For some, these gatherings are the only occasions when they get to see their social media friends as a group. The regularity of the interaction online means that when they do meet up face-to-face, conversations carry on as if they had known each other for years. There’s little of the awkwardness of introducing each other’s likes and dislikes. The context has already been set by the interaction on social media. Thus (for me at least) they don’t have the artificial feel of ‘networking events’.

For support, and having someone to fight your corner

Because if you are alone in your room and are being attacked by someone online, it can feel like a very lonely place. When others are able to intervene – whether in the form of support or whether going guns blazing against the offender, suddenly you feel less alone. That’s not to say things are any less traumatic. Too many people in my social community have been reduced to tears or otherwise because of abusive messages tweeted to them.

People have different levels of sensitivity. For some it is easier to brush off abusive things than others. Some have thicker skins than others and are able to dish it out as well as taking the hits. One of the things I try and do with my social community is to bring people together so that there is some sort of collective security – and one that straddles ages, genders, orientations, beliefs, ethnicities, abilities, life backgrounds and career professions. (Have I missed anything?) The depth of knowledge and experiences that I can now draw from is a tremendous asset and rock of support.

Has my social community changed me?

Absolutely – but it’s been a subtle process. Why? It’s the impact of interaction and the very personalised feed that I now have. Anecdotally I have more females in my social community than males. This has a noticeable impact on the items that appear on Puffles’ feed compared with what appears in the mainstream news. Ditto with analysis and opinion. Things that are issues to critical masses of my social community are things that prior to using social media I was hardly aware of – certainly not on the scale compared to today.

This is also one of the areas where I try to do a fair amount of ‘cross-fertilisation’ too – flagging up different issues with different people. Something campaign-wise may not be at the top of my list, but it might be at the top of someone else’s. Would it be useful for them to know about? If so, I let them know.

Where next for the #PufflesMassiv?

One thing I try to emphasise in training workshops is that with social communities, the offline can be just as important as the online. What you do online ideally should complement rather than replace what happens offline. The fluid nature of conversation on Twitter has allowed me to find people with multiple shared interests. Annoying perhaps that too many of them live too far away to go down the pub with, but when you’re in your early 30s and working freelance, the opportunities to spend time with lots of people on a regular basis (say in formal education) are very limited.

It would be lovely to see more of you (especially the more recent followers) interacting with the wider community (just as it would me tweeting a lot less. I’m working on it!) Feedback is really useful – especially where you don’t entirely agree with something I’ve commented on via Puffles. I have a handful of long term Tories in my social community who do this on a regular basis – keeps us on our toes. Otherwise our respective social communities from a political perspective become echo chambers. In recent times I’ve seen a number of articles and talks where people have commented on the impact of only engaging with people of a similar disposition. In the grand scheme of things you set yourselves up for falls. This happened in the last US election & it happened with the AV election (where parts of the YES campaign were surprised by the scale of the defeat).

And finally…

A big thank you to all of you that have helped make my social community what it is. In a world where too much news seems to be negative, it’s nice to have daily examples of people reaffirming my belief that most people actually want to be nice to each other.


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