Are Twitter announcements private? A brief consideration

As most people who follow the news are aware, on Tuesday an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia, injuring most of the 200-plus passengers and crew and killing eight. On Thursday, Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist who studies technology and social media, quoted a tweet saying this (note that the tweet she quoted appears at the bottom):

Tufekci posted this in response:

I don’t agree with her. Twitter is inescapably a public venue; by design, its users have no control over the visibility of their posts. If this woman had wanted to inform only those who know her, she could’ve used Facebook, which (again by design) allows users to limit who can see and who can respond to an update. Regardless of the medium, it may be that the woman was willing to accept, or even hoped to receive, expressions of sympathy from strangers but wanted no other response. If so, her expectation was unrealistic; the outcome had little or nothing to do with the medium she used but was more a matter of human nature. A close physical-world analogy is hard to come by, but the woman might as well have hung a sign around her neck, announcing that her cousin had died, and spent a day walking through a big city. If you present your situation to all and sundry, don’t you have to expect all sorts of responses?

What’s more, I’m not sure that the journalists can be charged with bad manners or insensitivity. Consumers of the news want—partly as a result of long training by the purveyors of news—to find a human and emotional dimension in the reporting of potentially abstract events such as plane and train crashes, natural disasters, and the like. “Eight dead” is simply a statistic, whereas a report such as this, from Wednesday’s Washington Post, gives us names, faces, and the feelings of some of those directly affected. How are reporters to get this human dimension if not by seeking out participants, witnesses, and anyone else with a connection to what happened? Journalists can be pests; in order to do their job, they often have to poke and pry and intrude, without knowing in advance how they’ll be received. Something is amiss if we expect them to feed our hunger for emotion, which sometimes amounts to disaster porn, while also demanding that they never trespass against anyone’s notion of privacy.

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