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  • Writer's pictureLaura

Online communities are real: The dangers are real too.

I’ll be honest, after starting this project I realised that it was going to be more difficult than I initially envisaged. For a start, talking about Twitter communities isn’t exactly enticing, as well as that many of us don’t feel like we belong to one. We tend to just go online, speak with the people we know and at times perhaps speak with those we don’t know.


It seems that hardly any of us really, truly believe that we are part of a community. Perhaps that’s why seeing such terms or phrases turns us off straight away. Because Twitter doesn’t feel like a community - it feels more like a place where we go to shout off or share, but do we really belong?


I know that I don’t feel the same sense of community that there used to be, and maybe that’s because things are different now. Maybe as Elon Musk has made changes, people are walking away more and more, or changing how they interact now. Maybe it’s the world. As life has moved away from lockdowns and we’ve begun to spend less time online once again, perhaps those groups we were once a part of now no longer feel as important. Maybe social media isn’t really a place for community at all, after all, things move on so fast, how can we truly come together and stay together when there’s so much at play? So many different metrics and morals to navigate, not to mention the algorithms. Everything is changing by the day.



a black and white photo of a forest scene with tall pines. A man stands on a path through a gap in the trees.


I’m writing this post with Janis. We both have very different experiences and perspectives of how Twitter has changed as well as how we have each used it. Yet both of us have felt the dangers of online spaces. Both of us have faced online misogyny. Both of us have encountered harassment, and unwanted attention, events that so many women have endured yet so few have found support for other than changing our own behaviours and identities.


In this sense, community is very real, because without the solidarity and support of groups that we identify with, maybe we wouldn’t still be online today. Whether you believe that a community is something that resonates with you or not, chances are you have been a part of one and still are today. Because as boring and abstract as they may seem as a topic, online communities are real. And the things that happen within these spaces are very real too.



About Janis "I am a retired teacher. We have an autistic son in his late thirties who is now in supported living, but who has had a rough ride from the care system. He wasn't even diagnosed till he was 27 when we first mentioned the possibility to doctors when he was six months. I also cared for both my parents with dementia until they died recently, my mother in law and as is the way of things, acquired people along the way! I get very vehement and angry about the ways things have gone for our son and us. It's difficult to contain my fury that we have fought a system that in theory should be supporting us and him. When a child is born, you make it promises to care for and ensure a good life. We've done our best and it's currently not going badly, but we can't even relax and think that what we have achieved now after years of heartbreak is actually how it will be next year. Social Care is too precarious. Those with power care too little and our lives are too short now we are in our seventies."

Like me, Janis doesn’t feel like an active part of any community but feels some groups are supportive…


Janis:


I don't feel that I belong to many online communities as such. I contribute odd things to debates about particular or even random issues such as autism, Brexit, caring or social care. I like the ones that carers put up because they are generally so supportive and kind. Political ones make me cross and I am angry with the consequences of Brexit and the amount of corruption and incompetence in our recent government.


Twitter was a lifeline during Covid when we were locked up with our son who was made very angry and anxious by the lockdown. The only way to keep him calm was to nurse him, as you do with a sick toddler, so we were static and lonely. Going onto Twitter and looking for familiar voices meant that I could feel we were not alone in this challenging time even though we did appear to have been abandoned by the government and by social services.


Laura:


I agree with Janis, that before I was into photography and started to take part in sharing photos online, I found political discussions increasingly hostile. Like Janis, I also found the groups I was a part of supportive during the lockdowns, but I now wonder how much of that collectivism was real. Especially during difficult situations caused by other people in the same circles, it was difficult to speak out then and even more so now. I’ve retained my identity online (despite being advised by friends to opt for a pseudonym) but I know that this can make us more vulnerable too. This is what happened to Janis…


Janis


I reserved my identity, not particularly well, under a user name given to me by my son at the turn of the century and that freedom gave me the chance to express myself, perhaps with more anger than I would with my name open to the public. There's something about being restricted in

words that mean that comments will be direct and not everyone reads the correct meaning so the protection of a false identity was useful. Even quite innocuous statements can bring out the nutters and sexists in full attack mode and that's not pleasant. I try to be polite even if a bit

vehement, but people who respond are often anything but.


I also used a moniker because I had experienced being harassed online with FB. I put up a swimming pool picture of me and my granddaughter and I was wearing a modest one-piece costume. Nevertheless, lots of random men began pestering and sending me personal pictures and it's difficult to feel safe when that happens. Nevertheless even doing that and using a

neutral image of a candle didn't prevent all the nasty stuff. A well-known 90s comedian objected to my view that the song Delilah was misogynistic and went through my Twitter account finding irrelevant carer comments and posting nasty things about me. It was weird and

frightening. Twitter has never felt entirely safe.


Laura:


Janis isn’t alone in this experience of harassment. I too have encountered online harassment, at times from people who followed me. Those I’d previously had friendly interactions with and who I thought I could trust. This has led me to disable comments on my tweets, as since these experiences I’ve always been on edge, worrying that it might happen again. When I did speak out I was initially met with silence, until others began to share their own experiences with me privately. This shows that it isn’t just an individual problem, but something that many of us are experiencing widely - and also within our communities too. Perhaps this is why we don’t identify as being part of a community when these spaces don’t feel safe?


Janis also agrees that she feels that Twitter has changed recently.


Janis:


I used to value Twitter because I was able to put comments on the posts of accounts like the Welsh Government responding to their posts. Normally they don't respond or listen, but a popular Twitter post is difficult to entirely ignore, so I think that politicking in that manner is helpful for people who are campaigning.  It was nice to make friends with some

carers too.


One thing I have noticed recently is the number of very right-wing posts that appear in my timelines despite my disliking them. Random Conservative politicians are always appearing, but I have privately thought that one well-known Conservative politician is a dangerous and deluded man for a very long time. The reluctance of Twitter to address obvious lies is unpleasant. Free

speech should not include racist, sexist or hate speech. The recent Golliwog debate is all over my timeline currently and it's infuriating as random inaccuracies are given the status of facts to 'prove' Golliwogs are not racist. I don't want to block because it is important to understand other people's arguments if you wish to understand other points of view. Nevertheless, some of the twaddle that appears is very triggering.


Laura


Janis also feels that some of the recent changes have left her feeling vulnerable, and at times angered surrounding discrimination that she has encountered on Twitter.


Janis:


Under my own name, I am attracting followers who really aren't interested in what I think or who I am. They are clearly bots; apparently young women with limited clothing as their image and lots of retweets about football. I block each one but sometimes four or five will try and follow at a time. It's difficult to keep on top of it. it's happening far more recently, and I wonder how many have slipped through the net and are hanging about gathering data.


The other point is that many people who police sites that use offensive racist material are then perfectly happy to refer to racists as 'imbeciles' or 'cretins'. When I and others point to just how deeply offensive this is they refuse to acknowledge there is a problem with their language and dig down harder accusing us of being rude. It seems that for many, Twitter isn't about exchange or learning, but a convenient soapbox for people to air their prejudices, often at the expense of the very vulnerable. I never allowed my children to use terms like 'gay' as terms of abuse and to see well-respected liberals calling each other and me 'idiots' and 'morons' even when the issue is pointed out leaves me feeling that learning disability remains an acceptable prejudice.


So, Twitter has definitely changed for me. I found it won't let me use my neutral identity and I am now online under my own name. My birthday was added to the identity, despite the fact I don't share it with anyone. Some of my favourite sites disappeared from my timeline as well. I found I had been unfollowed and also that the sites I follow no longer recognise me so I have

had to go back and re-follow. I am not really that concerned to attract followers and don't understand that side of Twitter, but I was really miffed to find some of my favourite sites unfollowed by me.


Laura:


I admire Janis for not being drawn into the engagement aspect of Twitter. This is something that I really struggle with personally, which has caused me a lot of problems and paranoia. But it seems that something else is happening here too, changes in the algorithm and potentially being shown completely irrelevant content. This makes me wonder if we are really seeing those alike any more. Ok, it is important to not reside within an echo chamber but still, is this one of the things that is keeping us apart and making us feel more and more alone? Could that be why we are not feeling that communities are real?


Towards the end of our chat, I asked Janis the following question;


‘What do you think is important for Twitter communities to stay connected in the future?’


Janis


Twitter communities need to stay together because we learn by sharing experiences. The best advice I have been given has always been from other carers who understand how it is and don't make one feel awful for having negative thoughts. I'm not entirely sure I understand the intent of the third question, but private and public spaces are needed for the free exchange of ideas. Just police the bullying and hate speech with more care. Use tighter restrictions over the worst and if someone feels they are being bullied, then let them send the evidence and boot the pest

offline.  We need powerful voices to speak for us and we need to band together to become that powerful voice.


Laura:


Janis’s final statement is so powerful. To overcome the issues raised here, we need to find each other again. The first step is understanding that online communities are very real and that we are all a part of them in some way.


 

How do you feel about online communities?


Are they important to you or something to be avoided?


Feel free to let us know in the comments below or connect with us over on Twitter.


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