It's only a joke, Twitter

How public is public these days?

There’s something about the annual Goodreads Reading Challenge that is super motivating for me in a way that other challenges are not. Every year, I set a goal for around 50 books. The year I had my daughter, I failed miserably. When I picked reading (and thinking and sleeping!) back up again, I felt like I was dying of thirst and reading was the only thing that could bring me back to sanity. Can you guess which two years those were?

Since I’m expecting again and anticipating a complete lack of time for reading from July until about, oh, January 2025, I decided to front-load my reading goals, and as such, have sped through a lot of interesting books that have my gears turning.

The latest one of these is “It’s Only a Joke, Comrade! Humour, Trust and Everyday Life Under Stalin”. For those who have already followed my previous writing, it’s not a secret that I like to read and think a lot about the worst time in history, the Soviet Union under Stalin, and how it relates to life today.

I’ve already read a TON about this period in researching for a novel that may or may not ever get finished. But, one of the new things I learned from “It’s Only a Joke,” which attempts to dissect how humor was used in the 1930s by piecing together personal diaries and declassified reports of notes taken during arrests from NKVD archives, was that many arrests of people during the Great Terror happened from people overhearing things at railroad stations and in trains. The least number of arrests happened from family members or people during intimate gatherings reporting others.

Railroad stations are liminal spaces, physical places that are places of transition as opposed to places of purpose (i.e. home, work, coffee shops, etc.). You’re not entirely in one place, but not entirely in the next. As such, they’re places of immense ambiguity for humans, where the rules might not necessarily apply. At train stations, surrounded by strangers, people became relaxed and told jokes that they probably wouldn’t tell at work or at home, knowing they might never see these people again. (It also helps that Russian trains are often places where, traditionally, great amounts of alcohol are consumed to deal with the long distances across the country. )

Anyway, how this relates to tech today is that we have a ton of liminal places popping up that we haven’t defined as such, and, as a result, we have a problem of not knowing how to deal with them.

One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is people who use speakerphone on their cell phones in public, a phenomenon I seem to be seeing more and more of. To me (and, it turns out to a lot of other people), it’s a blatant violation of what a public space is.

But, maybe I’m being unfair so I decided to dig into the issue, and found out that a lot of people who use speakerphone in public consider it the same as talking to another human in public. If there are people talking anyway, why does it matter where they are? And yet, for a reason that I can’t put my finger on, it does, to me. Because it feels like I’m listening to a private conversation. The rules of liminal spaces, of phones in public, are new and different than anything we’ve had in society before. Everything is in flux.

The second thing I’ve been thinking about is the semi-public and liminal nature of Twitter. We’re all aware that tweets are default by public, but it’s a kind of intimate public. When we type into that box, can we possibly predict who’s going to see it?

Our minds cannot possibly predict all the 50 million directions a tweet can go, but for me, the best hypothetical usually not in a very positive direction, which is why most of my tweets are stupid dad jokes about technology instead of hot takes, on, say labor law.

I’ve written about this fear before, the growth of self-censorship due to an exposure to a much larger audience:

That’s an exaggeration, but the recent explosion of viral content means that every time I write a blog post (or tweet), I have to think about everyone that reads it: my family, my friends, my coworkers at the office, my coworkers at other offices, my dentist, people on Twitter, people on Facebook, people who repost my content in Japan or India or Korea with my blog name with my first and last name, out there in the internet.

I think I’m generally overly paranoid about this, and that it’s exhausting to live this way, which is probably what people making jokes about Stalin on trains thought, as well.

I don’t have any answers, but it’s an area I want to continue to explore within historical contexts - what does it mean for something to be assumed private or public in an era of screenshots? What rights and responsibilities do we have to each other in liminal spaces, particularly as public shaming becomes a public sport? How can Twitter combat the vibe it has going on of people just quote-tweeting each other into oblivion?

Food for thought as companies continue to try to define what’s public and private about social media.

Image: Skiers on a train, Norman Rockwell, 1962

What I’m Reading Lately

  1. Speaking of private and public spaces, Jowanza wrote a great post on trying to seek out quiet in today’s society. “Canceling the noise around me is the only thing that makes it bearable to work in an open office. When I first moved to Utah, I'd bike home late at night after a day of classes, and the silence of the streets would scare me. I wanted that space filled with ambulance sirens, buses rolling by and the soundscape familiar to the New York native. Now the vinyl cups of my headphones cover my ears for hours a day as I try to find a space for deep thought.”

  2. What happened when the New York Times put cameras in the newsroom? Apparently the New York Times reporters didn’t care and ended up writing a puff piece about it instead of really digging into the trend of employee surveillance at the office.

  3. Reddit asks, what business killed by the internet do you miss most?

  4. A review of a book about the daily routines of women writers (I’ve read the original one they’re referencing and it’s a strong recommend)

  5. Greg, who has been thinking for a long time online about how to teach and learn programming, wrote a piece about what courses he’d like to see as part of a software engineering curriculum: “…I am more convinced than ever that the standard third-year introduction to software engineering based on textbooks like these should be replaced by one that teaches undergraduates how to get, clean, analyze, and understand software engineering data.”

  6. Books: I’m also reading The Sympathizer, which is very meaty and very good so far (about 60 pages in), but, like, totally not because Bill Gates recommended it. I saw it before it was cool *brushes shoulder*

If you’re reading something good, let me know. :)


About the Author

I’m a data scientist in Philadelphia. Most of my free time is spent kid-wrangling, reading, and writing bad tweets. I also have longer opinions on things. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter. This newsletter, including warm takes about data, tech, and everything around those two, goes out twice-ish a week for free. Paid subscribers get even more warm takes.

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