Twitter and the Politics of Citation
Sarah Florini / Arizona State University


Researchers Twitter

Researchers have increasingly turned to Twitter for social media analysis.

In recent years, as more scholars have begun turning their attention to social media, quoting and citing material from social media sites, particularly Twitter, has become a source of great controversy. Traditionally academics have considered anything publicly available online as “published.” Therefore, no permissions are required to cite this material with proper attribution. While this is an established standard among researchers, it is not universally agreed upon by social media users, many of whom feel citing their tweets is equivalent to eavesdropping on a personal conversation or even intellectual property theft. This has emerged as an ongoing debate with little consensus.

Because social media blurs the lines between public and private, producer and audience, and mass and interpersonal communication, users have complicated and often contradictory beliefs about how their social media timelines should be viewed and potentially used by researchers.[ ((Nancy K. Baym, “Fans or Friends?: Seeing Social Media Audiences as Musicians Do,” Particpations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies 9, no. 2 (2012); Manuel Castells, “Communication, Power and Counter-Power in the Network Society,” International Journal of Communcation 1 (2007); Alice Marwick and danah boyd, “I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience,” New Media and Society 13, no. 1 (2010); Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006); Patrick O’Sullivan and Caleb T Carr, “Masspersonal Communication” a Model Bridging the Mass-Interpersonal Divide,” New Media and Society 20, no. 3 (2017).))] Twitter is a particular challenge because it so commonly functions as both mass media, a one-to-many style of communication, and interpersonal comunication. Politicians and celebrities rarely hold official press conferences anymore. They instead make statements via Twitter and other social media. Many Twitter users see their tweets as contributions to a larger public discourse and will often describe them in terms of intellectual labor and/or property. At the same time, Twitter is social media and retains some of the expectations of social interaction. Users have conversations and interactions that they see as sociality, not mass communication, and consequently, quoting or referencing these tweets is viewed as similar to quoting a conversation that was overheard. Users in the same networks, sometimes even the exact same users, interpret Twitter in both of these contradictory ways.

Twitter's Terms of Service Page

Twitter’s Terms of Service Page

Unlike many social media platforms, Twitter’s Terms of Service does not grant the platform copyright of users’ content. According to Twitter, “You retain your rights to any Content you submit, post or display on or through the Services. What’s yours is yours…”[ ((Twitter, Terms of Service, .n.d. accessed November 10, 2017, https://twitter.com/en/tos#usContent ))] The the rights and regulations of intellectual property have been governed by a set of federal laws that outline who can use ideas, how, and under what circumstances. Section 107 of the Copyright Act allows for unlicensed use of copyrighted material for commentary and criticism, parody, news and reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.[ (( Copyright.gov, “More information on Fair Use,” n.d. accessed November 10, 2017, https://www.copyright.gov/fair-use/more-info.html))] Academics are covered under several of these categories, making direct citation permissible with proper attribution.

However, though that is the legal standard, in the age of massive media conglomerates the de facto standard for Fair Use has been based on which entities have the resources for legal action. For example, academics are routinely forced to pay licensing fees to cite song lyrics in their work. Under fair use, quotation of song lyrics should be permissible as commentary, criticism, or scholarship. However, after the music industry began aggressively pursuing peer-to-peer file sharing and other intellectual property issues in the early 2000s, fair use seems null and void when it comes to materials owned by this industry. Publishers of academic books and journals simply can’t afford to be embroiled in a legal conflict with large media corporations and will instead require authors get permission for quotes. Obtaining this permission generally involves the author paying a licensing fee that can be several hundred dollars per line of lyrics. This phenomenon is not confined to academia. Stephen Colbert did several segments on The Colbert Report where he joked about his inability to use footage of NFL games or even use the trademarked phrase “Super Bowl” because Comedy Central’s parent company Viacom was unwilling to take the legal risk. Thus, while there are legal standards, ultimately copyright and usage is a matter of power, not legality.


Stephen Colbert jokes about his inability to use the trademarked phrase “Super Bowl”

Some Twitter users express attitudes about intellectual property and quotation that are in line with fair use, merely wanting their ideas attributed to them. However, some users express a belief that on the surface is more in line with the licensing model embraced by the music industry or NFL, that they should be compensated when their words are used regardless of the context. In part this is grounded in the ways that marginalized people, particularly Black women, are systematically denied the opportunity to benefit from their intellectual contributions. Outlets often seem eager to quote marginalized people’s ideas while rarely giving them opportunities to write professionally. This licensing-style approach to quotation seems to grow out of this inequality. These users are often chided for claiming intellectual property rights that far exceed those granted by law or norm. But, given that the enforcement of intellectual property rights have largely become about power, rather than legal standing, demanding compensation for quotation can be understood not only as an attempt to rectify an economic imbalance, but as an attempt to reclaim power. Users from marginalized groups have long had little say in how they were written about and how their ideas were used. Demands for remuneration when they are quoted are both an amelioration of inequitable material circumstances and an assertion of agency.

These power dynamics require researchers to be particularly attentive to the ethics of their citational practices. The days of codified, agreed-upon field-wide practices are gone. To be ethical in our research, scholars must be attentive to the complex, nuanced, and fluctuating contours of power in Twitter networks. Our approaches to citation of social media sources must be contextual, adaptable, grounded in cultural competencies, and created in conversation with those we cite.

Image Credits:
1. Researchers Have Increasingly Turned to Twitter for Social Media Analysis
2. Screengrab of Twitter’s Terms of Service Page
3. No consensus among Twitter users about fair use and copyright.

Please feel free to comment.




There are Black People in the Future: Digital Technology and Black Prescience
Sarah Florini / Arizona State University

The Last Billboard

Artist Alisha Wormsley’s contribution to The Last Billboard project.

In spring 2018, artist Alisha Wormsley erected a billboard in Philadelphia reading, “THERE ARE BLACK PEOPLE IN THE FUTURE.” Originally a playful jab at speculative fiction, which tends to imagine a future that is overwhelming white, the phrase has come to be an Afrofuturist mantra, representing not only the presence of Black people in the future but their role in shaping it. As I have participated in Black digital networks over the last decade, this phrase has become my shorthand for a consistent cycle. Practices that emerge from and develop in Black networks often become de rigueur internet culture a few years later. Here I outline three moments that revealed how networks of Black users – their practices and challenges – are often always already in the future.

The network that has since come to be known as “Black Twitter” pioneered networked co-viewing, i.e., live tweeting television. In the early days of Twitter, Black users created a more homophilic network and used the platform in a more conversational manner. Black users created reciprocal networks and engaged in discussion, verbal games and humor, and eventually began watching television together. As early as the 2009 BET Awards, Black users were using Twitter to create a networked watch-party. The following year, Black Twitter created so much traffic that the Trending Topics, Twitter’s algorithmically produced list of most tweeted about phrases or hashtags, was dominated by names and phrases from the award show. Black Twitter users could be found on Sunday nights watching The Boondocks, but not before sending out the call to participate. “Time for the Boondocks” would regularly appear in the U.S. trending topics, and by the end of the 2010 season 3, the Trending Topics were dominated with Boondocks related phrases every Sunday night. After which, it seemed as if everyone turned the channel simultaneously to MSNBC for To Catch A Predator and was cracking jokes about Chris Hanson and iced tea pitchers. Before many even knew what Twitter was, Black users had established the practice of live tweeting as a strategy for a collective viewing experience.

Twitter Trending Topics

All but #NowPlaying, #ibetyou5dollars, #WillGetYouKilled, and #icouldnever date are related to The Boondocks.

Similarly, independent Black podcasters were at least two years ahead of the current podcast boom. Between 2012 and 2014, Black podcasts flourished. By the time Serial, the podcast that is credited with kicking of the resurgence of podcasts, debuted in October 2014, Black podcasters were already well ahead of the trend. As podcasts began to proliferate in 2015, independent Black podcasters had already established a robust presence, anticipating both the value and the popularity of the medium.

Most recently, Facebook, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, announced that its future development will focus more on facilitating smaller and more closed social interactions. While the plans announced will have relatively small ramifications for current user practices, the discourse used represents a marked shift from Facebook’s original stated purpose of “making the world more open and connected.” Mark Zuckerberg wrote of the change saying:

Over the last 15 years, Facebook and Instagram have helped people connect with friends, communities, and interests in the digital equivalent of a town square. But people increasingly also want to connect privately in the digital equivalent of the living room. As I think about the future of the internet, I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today’s open platforms.

He goes on to outline the rationale for this assertion, and for the future trajectory of the company, by pointing to users’ desire to gain greater control of their audience (which Zuckerberg equates with “privacy”) and for more ephemerality, preventing older posts from coming back to haunt users later.

Photo of Mark Zuckerberg, Guardian Article

Zuckerberg testifying before Congress in 2018.

Siva Vaidhyanatha has argued that this move is likely motivated by Facebook’s desire to solidify its dominance in the same manner as WeChat, a mobile phone app so popular in China that it is embedded into almost every aspect of life. The changes Zuckerberg describes would do much to undermine Facebook’s competitors and shape Facebook in WeChat’s image. However, Zuckerberg’s rhetoric of moving from digital “town square” to “digital living room” reaffirms a conceptual shift that began in Black digital networks several years prior.

Beginning in 2015 and through the run up to the 2016 presidential election, Black users began making increased use of formal and informal barriers that insulated their interactions from outsiders. Black users, especially Black women, have long been the targets of harassment and abuse online, and this vitriol intensified and coalesced into a coordinated political effort in 2014, continuing to do so through the 2016 election. Both Imani Gandy and Terrell Starr wrote pieces in 2014 detailing years of harassment and abuse that women, particularly Black women, endured online and Twitter’s steadfast unwillingness to curb the hostility. That same year, attacks became more coordinated and sustained. Users from message boards like 4Chan began creating fake accounts in attempts to impersonate, infiltrate, and “sow discord” among those they termed “SJWs,” social justice warriors. As the 2016 election approached, anti-SJW internet trolls, white supremacists (who had rebranded themselves the “alt-right”), and misogynist movements like GamerGate and the Men’s Rights Movement had well-worn strategies for making public and semi-public social media platforms nearly unusable for marginalized people. Added to this were the over-zealous Bernie Sanders supporters, who exacerbated the historic tensions between class and race in leftist movements, and the Russian bots and sock puppet accounts who imitated and amplified each of these existing social conflicts. Black users, who were a primary target, were forced to carve out spaces where they could interact without such hostilities.

Toxic Twitter

Amnesty International’s Toxic Twitter Campaign.

Now, this kind of abuse has increasingly become the norm. Though Zuckerberg (unsurprisingly) never directly mentions the problem of harassment and abuse, the desires he attributes to users – controlling one’s audience and the permanence of posts – are intertwined with strategies users employ to avoid the hostility that can result from public or semi-public internet sharing. This discursive shift from Facebook, a platform used by 68% of Americans, signals that mainstream discussion of social media now presupposes a desire among the broader population for more sequestered digital spaces.

Yet again, Black users have anticipated digital trends, engaging in and developing practices that are becoming the norm. So often, academics only value Black knowledge and perspectives for understanding race and racism. But, when you critically and earnestly engage Black people and Black thought, your understanding of our digital landscape increases exponentially. There are Black people in the future, and they have beaten us there.

Image Credits:
1. Alisha Wormsley
2. Twitter Trending Topics (author’s screen grab)
3. Mark Zuckerberg
4. Amnesty International’s Toxic Twitter Campaign

Please feel free to comment.