These women did indeed remove themselves from a public sphere. Twitter, with its more than 300 million active monthly users, is a communal space in a new and extraordinary way that’s driven by the specific technological decisions of the site, which carry with them specific affordances. “Affordances,” a term popularized in the world of design and user interaction by Donald Norman, is a way of describing the perceived possibilities of how the user can interact with the product. These affordances shape how users behave.
Much of the power of Twitter comes from retweets, which can carry the words of a user to an audience far beyond their own followers (for comparison, see Instagram, where no such function exists—it makes it much more difficult for a specific image to “go viral” on the site). But retweeting also allows for what social-media researchers such as danah boyd and Alice Marwick refer to as “context collapse”: removing tweets from not only their temporal and geographic context, but also their original social and cultural milieu, which is very different from most public spaces. I described it to a friend once on a New York City subway—“we’re talking in public, in that everyone near us in this subway car can hear what we’re saying, but that’s a very different ‘public’ than hearing ourselves on NPR tomorrow.” While readers may literally know nothing about the poster or the context except for what is said in that one tweet, they can still just hit “reply” and their response will likely be seen by the poster.
While nothing is stopping people from finding out more information before responding, the clearest affordance Twitter has is for these “drive-by” responses (I’ve been mansplained to by many people who I presume haven’t even looked at my bio to see the “engineering professor” there before trying to school me on my research field—per Telemachus, “of me most of all”). This amplification and context collapse, coupled with the ease of replying and of creating bots, makes targeted harassment trivially easy, particularly in an environment where users can both mostly live in their own ideological bubble by following people who share their views, however abhorrent, and who can easily forget that there is a real person behind the 140 characters of text.
So while Twitter may consider itself to be merely reflecting the discourse, these technological affordances ease the way for certain types of hostile behavior. If you think of the experience of the generalized, systemic misogyny and racism of our culture as being bathed in sunlight on a scorching hot day, Twitter might say it’s just a mirror. But it’s actually handing out magnifying glasses that can focus the already painful ambient sunlight into a killing ray. The targets of this ire, in our society and on Twitter, are disproportionately not just women but people of color. (Imagine how Telemachus would have responded if, rather than his mother, one of the non-Greek household slaves chose to speak up in visiting company.)