Forced Context Collapse or The Right to Hide in Plain Sight

There is a whole brand of (mostly digital) journalism that culls social media content for stories. We can argue about the extent to which that is reporting as opposed to search engine optimization but it is fairly safe to say that this is a set of activities happening in the media domain.

Almost from the start this practice has been problematic. When I tweet (and this debate is primarily happening around Twitter content) from an unlocked Twitter account I can assume that the content will be read beyond my immediate circle of followers. That is, after all, the implication of Twitter’s platform design. Twitter’s architecture is a mash-up of theories about weak ties and virality. I may not know that when I sign up for Twitter but it is a lesson quickly learned the first time you’re deluged with angry tweets about something you thought was benign.

The problems with media organizations publishing tweets has three main debates. One, do these organizations have the “right” to republish my Twitter content? Two, do these organizations have the moral authority to republish my Twitter account without my permission? Three, do these organizations have a responsibility to share returns to my Twitter content with me?

That’s my read of the multiple debates around this. And they’re three different issues really but they are often conflated.

Journalists are quick to remind you that Twitter is public and therefore whatever you say there falls under long established journalistic rules about the public domain as fair game. Someone better versed in public and private media is welcome to jump in here. But, my read is that this argument makes some of its own conflations. Twitter is public in the sense that the public can see the content with minimal thresholds for participation. Point a browser to Twitter and browse all the content you want.

However, Twitter isn’t the public square. It is actually a formerly private company (now publicly traded stockholder organization) that absolutely controls access to and the architecture of content generated by Twitter users. And when you become a Twitter user, you:

grant [Twitter] a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed).

By that logic, media organizations benefit from the distribution agreement of the terms of service. So, we’re being a little disingenuous here with appeals to the public square. Those appeals allude to some collective power to define the square as public. The people can’t really do that here. In theory they can but in practice there aren’t a lot of mechanisms to negotiate terms of service. So, Twitter’s public nature is complicated. But, let’s give this a pass on a technicality — media can distribute the content that I provide Twitter free of charge, albeit not freely owned.

But the legal right to do something doesn’t make doing that something the right and proper thing to do. We have different components of legitimacy. You can have the regulatory right to perform an act but not the moral right to do so. And that’s what that second issue is about. Is it right for BuzzOKGawkerTimes to take my content all willy nilly and do with it what they please? Willy nilly is a very precise theoretical concept, by the way. Just go with me on it.

Here’s the thing about the morality point — it depends. Whose morality? Journalists have been “borrowing” leads since journalism started journalisming. I like the classic by Gaye Tuchman here on making media and the news practice of “borrowing”. While stealing may be another word for borrowing so is “pulse-taking”, i.e. that journalistic ethos of gauging the spirit of the people and the times. It’s the “gut” for news. The “nose” for what’s hot in the streets. And I think that’s what the tingle in Chris Matthews’ leg was about. Guts, noses, restless leg syndrome — these all appeal to the idea of the spirit of journalistic inquiry. They find out what people are talking about and they report on it. By that logic, borrowing my tweets is not only moral but it is a democratic tradition.

But what if I sign up for Twitter knowing that it is public but assuming that I am not? What if I freely consent to public content but not to being a public persona? Here is where I think the idea of context collapse and the debate about media outlets borrowing tweets offers some serious clarity. Context collapse, loosely, is about how we switch up our performance depending on who is watching. (See the more precise definition here and here).  To my mind it borrows heavily from DuBois’ double-conciousness and the idea of code-switching. We decide how to act based on who is around because we know that not all people are created equal. And when we might need access to privileged resources like, say, jobs, we act differently around audiences presumed to be comprised of people who govern access to jobs.

Context collapse has mostly been about the control I can exert over how and when and where I perform the identity I think most appropriate for a situation. But what media organizations’ “tweet borrowing” does is strip me of that autonomy. They do this through a little idea called power. By virtue of being media and a company, these institutions are more powerful than little ol’ me. They have greater amplification power and more money to spend drowning out my resistance and more protection when they make a mistake than do individuals. Because their tingling legs keep our political institutions in check, media organizations get more benefit of the doubt than a lone rando. Because of the difference in power, media can force context collapse that may not have happened without its intervention. Thought of another way, I sign up for Twitter assuming the ability to hide in plain sight when my amplification power is roughly equal to a few million other non-descript content producers. Media amplification changes that assumption and can do so without my express permission.

Forced context collapse is Twitchy’s entire organizational logic. It’s also the logic of hashtags of resistance. The activities are the same. The differences are all about whose morality you think is most moral. In the case of forced context collapse wrought by publishing people’s tweets, it is also about whose morality is always assumed right. And because these arguments are really emerging from some of the most marginalized social groups — black and brown women, specifically — that is not a small thing to consider.

Now, forced context collapse doesn’t get exactly at that third argument I hear in these debates. That’s the argument about credit and recompense. Credit is never apolitical. Ask any academic who has ever made a mortal enemy over a citation. Credit is real. Money is real, too. And the former and the latter may be similar but I’m not sure the arguments about them are arguing the same thing. Some people are arguing that taking Twitter content but leaving behind the person who produced it is a violation. If a media organization thinks the tweet is good enough to generate views and clicks and attention, then the person who wrote the tweet should be considered good enough to credit for the content. That can be a claim to self-actualization and often is. But it can also be about people wanting to trade in the attention economy of digital traffic. And that is okay. But I think it’s useful to separate that claim from some of the other claims, if only because resolving that problem is the easiest. Media could certainly add clear style guidelines on credit and citations for social media content. If you have to capitalize White but spell black in lowercase because the Associated Press style guide gods decreed it, you can probably make as arbitrary a guideline about linking social media content to the content producer.

The issue about attention is kind of about money but indirectly. Some people make more direct claims to economic exchange. Basically, if media organizations make money from republishing my tweets why should I remain broke? That’s fair…and harder to resolve than it seems on the surface. Use value and exchange value have become decoupled here. We don’t know what the price of either is in a system where a company can be “worth” a gazillion dollars in theory while generating zero profit based on the free content produced by humans whose production of that content has a real cost in safety, time, and talents. Basically, the content isn’t making anyone rich really. The people in the platform are producing attention that stimulates capital investment but very little actual value. Appeals to economic parity may not quite grasp that half of financialized capital isn’t much in practical terms (you can see a related discussion here).

Despite the complexities of the economics of sharing the returns to tweets, there are multiple arguments being had using the same language and claiming to be one argument. That creates a lot of confusion and ill will.

Do journalists have the right to borrow your tweets? Yep. You gave it to them with Twitter’s terms of service. I’m not sure if it’s more effective to kick Twitter’s butt than the media’s though. Although the former seems easier to take in a fist fight.

Do journalists have the moral right to borrow your tweets? Maybe, if we think the public good mission of journalism outweighs the needs of the few and the marginalized. But media is not a scrappy outsider when compared with individual twitter users and they shouldn’t act as if they are. Media’s power to amplify and legitimize far exceeds that of any individual user and that should guide some best use practices. Forced context collapse can change lives, and not always for the better.

Should somebody be paying for all these tweets stolen in these streets? Well, the very framing of the practice as theft suggests some ownership that is hard to pin down given our current agreements with social media companies. But, let’s take that piece for granted. Then the question is how should media pay? In status, i.e. crediting content producers? That seems more than possible. But let’s be as fair about this as we are about calling out media’s “aw shucks” defense. Some folks aren’t talking about credit. They’re talking about money, be that in payment or jobs. And there it gets complicated again. Paid by whom and how? Under what kind of labor arrangement? Mediated by Twitter or not? And drawing from what revenue stream? Because the financialization of social media is actually quite muddled. Negotiating that would take some sense of Twitter users as collective labor.

And because history has a perverse sense of humor, the very conditions that produce Tweets that can be stolen are the conditions that make the very idea of collective labor an oxymoron.

2 thoughts on “Forced Context Collapse or The Right to Hide in Plain Sight

  1. You retain a copyright to the material you post. By license, Twitter has much of the same rights you do as a copyright owner, since of course, they must be able to publish your content. This does not apply to third parties, like newspapers.

    1. Thanks Larry. I did not link to the full TOS but read them and through the legalese as I could. You do retain copyright but you give Twitter the right to syndicate. So then the chain of command for issues or payment would be Twitter –> user, correct? Twitter becomes the content mediator? So it would still seem that if we want a publicly read but privately owned media then the issue is with ToS at least as much as it is with media? I’m specifically thinking about this: “This license is you authorizing us to make your Tweets available to the rest of the world and to let others do the same.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



It seemed only right that I share my dissertation acknowledgements seeing as how many of you, out there and in here, helped me on this journey. Thank you. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS There simply is not enough space for me to thank the many people who helped me make it this far but that will not stop meRead More “Acknowledgements”


Creating #Havoc at #VCUSOCY

It may surprise you to learn that I live a great deal of my life off-line. I know, I know, hear me out on this fantastical possibility. Recently, I’ve been offline meeting some of the most brilliant scholars across the country and I am beyond pleased to say that I have found a home amongRead More “Creating #Havoc at #VCUSOCY”