Your Definition of Private Can't Be Defined by What Makes You Uncomfortable

A debate that arose on Thursday made one thing clear: People are incapable of separating their ideas of "private" from "things I wish weren't public."

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A debate that arose on Thursday in response to an act of storytelling about sexual assault — the sort of storytelling that skips past dependence on the technology that presents it — made one thing clear: People are incapable of separating their ideas of "private" from "things I wish weren't public."

It began when BuzzFeed's Jessica Testa posted a story that in many other contexts and on many other topics would have been unremarkable, a series of quotes from people describing what happened to them. But the quotes were about rape, and the quotes were tweets.

Testa picked up a thread started by Twitter user @steenfox. Asking for feedback from women who'd been sexually assaulted, @steenfox's question was simple: "What were you wearing when you [were] assaulted?" She asked for permission to retweet the responses she got, which quickly and effectively made the point that rape and sexual assault are not functions of what women choose to wear.

One woman was six when she was assaulted, wearing "pink princess pajamas." Another was raped at knifepoint in her house while wearing a t-shirt and panties. Another, a blouse and fitted jeans at age 19. Another, a hooded sweatshirt and baggy jeans. Every sort of clothing, every age of woman, one result.

It was an important conversation, and it was important that the conversation be shared. So Testa compiled the responses, asked permission to reuse them — even from those people who'd already given consent to have their stories be retweeted — and shared the conversation with the world.

And people got mad. Prominent blogger Anil Dash tweeted a series of responses, suggesting that there's an implied expectation privacy in the anonymity that comes from speaking out online, solely by virtue of the fact that there are so many people saying so many things. And that to violate that is unethical, at best.

@steenfox herself was annoyed took issue with Testa, who uses the handle @jtes on Twitter.

The trivial response here is that from a practical standpoint, everything on Twitter is public. As befits the site's no-holds-barred sentiment, Gawker's Hamilton Nolan quickly made that point — a point that appears in point one of Twitter's Terms of Service. "Tip: What you say on Twitter may be viewed all around the world instantly. You are what you Tweet!"

Dash and others used increasingly nuanced arguments in response. "Tech folks use public/private as a binary flag, wrongly reducing context to a boolean," he tweeted. "Too often, journalists inherit that misapprehension." One common question in response was to ask if anyone's comments overheard anywhere in public could then be written up and published online. Or, narrowing that down, in a cafe where the screen is visible, and variations of that. And then the debate turned into one about journalistic ethics.

That's because this was about rape.

BuzzFeed used to have a go-to post that they'd do every time someone once-famous died or popped back up into the news, a collection of tweets from (mostly) teens asking who the thing or person was ("Twitter Doesn't Know Who Dick Clark Is").  It was such a stock-in-trade that The Wire mocked it in 2012. They were dumb, cheap, lazy posts because there was no point to them. They were just quick laughs at anonymous dummies. They've fallen out of fashion, mostly because the joke is gone.

But very few people were clutching at their pearls about taking those teens' tweets and putting them in a blog post. It was anecdotal nonsense aimed at embarrassing people and getting other people to laugh at them. There were very few ponderous thinkpieces about journalistic integrity or the implied extensions of privacy into a blatantly public sphere. They were dumb; it was all dumb.

Those teens weren't sharing something painful and uncomfortable, unlike the people who responded to @steenfox. They weren't making readers confront something incredibly uncomfortable. They weren't standing arm-in-arm and saying: "Pay attention to this horrible thing that happened to me when I was in preschool." Nor was there perceived personal value in rising to their defense.

Everyone tells stories that are interesting and everyone gets uncomfortable when those stories are painful and personal. None of this is about Twitter. None of it is about stepping up for women who have been raped — all of whom in this case were very capable of speaking for themselves. If what Dash and others think they're doing is helping to guide future uses of Twitter, they're only making it worse, causing people like Testa to pause before relaying stories that, if listened to, could help erode particularly pernicious and destructive misconceptions.

Lots of stories are hard to hear, even when run next to ads in The New York Times. We all decide when to relay stories and relay the important ones. This one was important. Your interpretation of what it says about Twitter is not.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.