I got unfollowed on Twitter one night last week. This is not unusual. Twitter is like a giant, continuous conversation and people tune in and out to one another all the time. What was different about this incident was that the person sent me a tweet to let me know that she was unfollowing and why: she objected to me – or anyone – using the word “fuck”. The tweet she didn’t like said “This headache can fuck off anytime now.”. I wasn’t cursing anyone out or directing to a person. I just used a swear word, for no good reason but also without malicious intent.
Anyway, after the woman unfollowed me, I mentioned it on Twitter and Facebook, which unleashed a veritable avalanche of f-bombs from people who are more amused than offended by my language. But one reader asked why I was bothering to say anything at all. Which was the best question I was asked all week. Why did I even mention it when it really didn’t hurt my feelings or affect my self-image or behavior?
All I can come up with it that it was reflexive and done without much thought. I often tweet about things that I find peculiar, like the time I saw a woman who looked like Snooki but with Holly Madison’s hair or when I saw an article about underwear with slogans to promote abstinence printed on them. The whole situation was just so odd that I shared it, mostly out of a sense of wonder. But, as my reader rightly pointed out, it came across as snotty of me. And it wasn’t really necessary.
When you think about it all, the internet and social media that puts you in contact with strangers makes for a very strange sort of interaction. A woman who I don’t know, whose preferences I am not familiar with read a sentence I wrote with a word she found offensive, which is her right, and told me her feelings, which is also her right. But is telling me about them and attempting to penalize me for them really appropriate given that she had no reasonable expectation that I would know her feelings about profanity? Would she call Chris Rock and tell him she didn’t like his language? What about opinions that different from hers? Would she tweet Paul Krugman to tell him she only wanted to read supply-side economic arguments? If not, why did she scold me for tweeting the f-word?
If you think of Twitter as a public space, you have to accept that you will be exposed to things that aren’t to your taste by going there because it’s impossible to control the behavior of strangers. If this woman had been sitting next to me in a bar and had overheard me say the same thing, would she have walked over to me, scolded me for my vocabulary and made a point of getting out of earshot of me? Probably not. And if she had, no one would have thought it strange of me to comment on the situation with others. The woman was in the bar voluntarily and, unless it was a special No Cussing Allowed bar, she should have be prepared to hear cussing in that space and to try and police my behavior would have been absurd of her.
Now, if we change the venue to a school party populated by children and parents and I dropped an f-bomb and she heard it, then she would have been well within the bounds of normal behavior to correct me because the venue and audience were not appropriate for that kind of language. In that case, her friends would not have been considered odd for commenting about the woman with the foul language around the kids.
So the question becomes, which type of space is Twitter? Is it for adults or an all-ages audience? What are the expectations of behavior in this type of public square? Who needs to modify their expectations and behavior? Was it out of line for her to scold me? Was it out of line for me to remark on it? Should I have apologized for unknowingly and unintendedly offending her sensibilities? Should I have let her action pass unremarked? Should I be expected to modify my language in case someone doesn’t like it? Should she be expected to modify her expectations of how others will behave within her hearing?
I don’t have any good answers to any of these questions. They’re all just the ponderables that come from participating in quasi-anonymous public discourse. Over the time I’ve been blogging I’ve made and changed a number of rules for myself based on my consideration of how my words might affect others. I don’t joke about committing acts of violence, not even to use phases like “throat punch” or other hyperbolic expressions of rage. I try to limit my comments to people’s behavior rather than their character. I try not to belittle those who have different opinions than I do. I don’t know how well I succeed at any of that but I try. Do I also need to curb my swearing because some people don’t like it? No. I don’t. And I won’t. Just like I won’t stop talking about consumer-based economic growth, how much I’m looking forward to a new season of “Millionaire Matchmaker”, and how frustrated I get with Metro. This is who I am. This is how I speak. I do not pretend to appeal to everyone. I respect you right to click away if you don’t like what I’ve said. But you need to respect my right to say it, f-bombs and all. And I need to respect that not everyone likes it and I shouldn’t make fun of them.
What do you all think? Who needs to adjust in this social media world of ours?