Last week, freelance writer and In The Fray blogger Tina Vasquez tweeted a challenging question: “If every WoC [woman of color] locked their Twitter account, how many fucking journalists would be out of a job? How many academics out of shit to steal?” The response to her tweet was immediate and strong, with several women agreeing that going private might be a useful experiment. One woman, who tweets as @bad_dominicana, replied, “If we blocked all the editors and writers we dont know and locked lol theyd write on dog fashion.”
Vasquez’s suggestion came in the wake of the controversy surrounding a Buzzfeed article that aggregated the responses to a question posed by Christine Fox on Twitter last Wednesday: What were you wearing at the time of your sexual assault? The author of the article, Jessica Testa, selected some of the responses to Fox’s tweet, added a bit of context, and published it that night. Testa went above and beyond what most journalists do when posting articles comprised of tweets. She reached out to the authors and obtained consent to embed their statements, offering to obscure photographs if so desired. However, she didn’t get in touch with Fox, who was distressed to find her image plastered across the Internet and Facebook. A subsequent article at Poynter.org by Kelly McBride inaccurately stated that Fox was not a survivor of sexual assault.
The Buzzfeed article touched off a backlash on Twitter by people, many of them prominent women of color tweeters and bloggers, who want journalists to obtain consent before using their words and images. That backlash led to a patronizing Gawker post by Hamilton Nolan in which he explained, pedantically and at length, that Twitter is public. The Gawker post then inspired several more articles, from The Washington Post and New York about the ethics of using tweets and whether journalists should treat statements from sexual assault survivors differently than others.
The idea of women of color taking collective action to block journalists from reading their tweets is certainly provocative. In one sense, a women of color Twitter blackout would affirm the argument made by Nolan and others that the only way to protect one’s words from being used by journalists is not to issue them in a public forum. For people who use Twitter to share ideas and experiences but don’t want to be exposed to the audiences of mainstream media outlets, taking one’s tweets private—or avoiding the platform altogether—is a form of self-defense.
But there are more radical implications to a Twitter blackout. Implicit in the idea that withholding one’s tweets would affect journalists’ ability to do their jobs is the notion that tweeters are producing something necessary to the “supply chain” of journalism. A Twitter blackout could be viewed as a form of labor action, with tweeting cast as a form of work. That work is obviously unwaged. Are some Twitter users becoming an unpaid workforce exploited for their intellectual and emotional labor?