It was hard enough admitting to my colleagues that I read blogs. After all, “real intellectual material” can only be found in a dusty archive locked up half the year and by permission only the other half. (Paging Virgin Woolf.) So imagine how much harder it is for me to admit to my academic colleagues that I tweet (that would be verb form). It is kind of like telling your fellow students at an Ivy that you not only watch television you enjoy it and have a set in your room.
So why am I admitting it?
While Twitter is not a revolution or a very revolutionary tool, it can help save lives.
Twitter save lives?!? Get off the crack …
On the same Jimmy Fallon episode I mention in the previous post, the founders of Twitter told a story about a young man participating in a protest in Palestinian territories in Israel. The young man was arrested by Israeli soldiers who refused to give him any information about why he was being arrested or what was going to happen to him. He managed to tweet the name of the place he was taken from, the description of the police van & its plates, and the description of the soldiers before his stream went dead. His 100+ followers retweeted to everyone they know who might be able to help and also bombarded the embassy with calls about his welfare. A few hours later, according to the Twitter co-founders, he was released without any harm & tweeted simply: thanks.
I can’t verify that story, but what I can do is tell you mine. Last night, I was volunteering at a multi-use/age community center. The center serves primarily homeless and at-risk people with some forms of violence or addiction in their lives & as such, has designated areas that are off limits to walk-ins. These areas are often for specific ages, genders, or sexualities and deemed safe spaces. On Wednesday nights, one of these spaces is considered “homework hours”; the computer lab and small upstairs library become youth only space.
Last night, an adult male walk-in demanded access to youth space. Despite my repeated directions that he needed to leave the area and was welcome to use the resources either in the adult only space or the multi-use space, he refused. He became increasingly belligerent and confrontational. When I told him that I was going to have to call security, he lunged at me, prevented from physically reaching me by the desk I was sitting at.
I called several of the main staff, including the youth coordinator, to try and get help with the man. B/c it was such a busy night, no one picked up their phones. Hearing the man rattling locked doors in the hallway to the youth area and working himself up for another frenzied attack, I tweeted.
In the minutes that followed, I alerted my 400 followers that there was a dangerous man in the center and that he had threatened me. I let them know exactly how many youth were in the room with me, w/out breaching confidentiality abt their names, descriptions, etc. And I formulated, but did not send, a 140 character description of the man to be sent out if he did actually hurt me. My goal: ensure the safety of the 15 kids in my care against this increasingly volatile man.
Within seconds of my first tweet, a long time blogger and fellow twitter user advised sending out a tweet with the location and asking anyone in the area to come to help. (Which I couldn’t do b/c of confidentiality, but was a great suggestion, and one I was prepared to take if it came down to our safety.) Another, advised abt how to keep the kids safe, and everyone reading my tweet stream began to go on the alert waiting to see if they needed to do something to make sure the children and I were ok.
Luckily, this little soft-spoken femme has a lot of violence reduction training. However, seeing as we academics have an expectation of safety at our workplace and seldom encounter physically threatening people (gun violence being the exception), that training is pretty rusty. And while there are several layers of misogyny in the ranks, I have only once been in a situation with a male academic where violence was on the table. He threw something at my head & clenched and unclenched his fists throughout a dinner in which we were forced to sit beside one another; that left me shaken & speechless b/c it was an anomaly & b/c I expect better from queer men of color. The encounter @ the community center left me shaking b/c it was not an anomaly. The economy has put intense stressers on all public & non-profit service agencies leading to more angry & distraught people & less staff availability. Anger & threat are becoming modus operandi in many spaces, and people’s frayed nerves and increased insecurities mean even a seemingly calm person can Hyde-out with the slightest provocation. As a volunteer, I am promised protection from such moments in the same way that one would assume I am protected from them amidst my colleagues; and yet, like the tenured professor who actually did assault me for little more than being a knowledgeable black girl unwilling to do what he wanted, b/c he knew he’d get away with it, this man was threatening me for similar reasons and with similar beliefs in the power of “patriarchy” to back him up. I was alone, and scared, even as I reminded myself if need be I could drop him like a dog. (And that is where power comes in, On the one hand, while I couldn’t use my training against famous tenured professor but I could against lone, unhinging, likely unemployed, possibly homeless black man without fear of career backlash. On the other, I had 15 children to look out for and no idea if this man was hopped up on drugs that would make him harder to overpower. He was angry b/c he felt emasculated by rules that likely extended beyond the center and that evening. As a man, he thought he had the right to push me around, the power to get into my face. He wanted to hurt me & given more time, he likely would have.)
This is where Twitter comes in. My tweeps provided two key elements to de-escalating the situation:
- they provided moral support and rational information @ a time when I was wholly alone in an unfamiliar setting
- they were prepared to alert people in my area & law enforcement should my tweets stop suddenly or I specifically asked for help
Had this situation escalated, my tweeps could have made the difference between physical harm to myself and the children and our continued safety. Unlike the police:
- they were immediately available
- completely unbiased by either my race or the man in question
- they would have been harder to sever contact with since you can yank a phone cord out of the wall but a wireless computer is much heavier and has no wires to yank.
And, while the man was monitoring my movements toward the phone, becoming more agitated and clearly weighing the option of physically stopping me from using the phone, it never occurred to him that I was steadily typing distress signals into my computer.
So no, Twitter isn’t a revolution. It is mostly just a fluffy time to touch base with like minded folks. But last night, my tweeps helped save at least 16 lives and for that, I am grateful.
see also my critique of Twitter here.