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Sunday Reflections: How Twitter is teaching us not to judge

When Eleanor from Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, with her out of control curly red hair and poor, holey clothes covered in scraps of cloth, first steps on the bust at her new school, the teens immediately judge her and deem her unworthy.  They then go on to torment and bully her.  When Meg shows up at her 6th school in one year in The Rules for Disappearing by Ashley Elston, her hair newly dyed and cut in an unflattering way, she too is judged by many to be unworthy and thus tormented.  It is, in fact, an all too common scenario in our schools.  Those who are deemed different, for whatever reason, are cast out or, worse, bullied.

Twitter, however, is a different universe.  On Twitter, you often get to know a person (in a way) before you know what they look like.  Yes, you have an Avatar, but a lot of the time it is not a self portrait but a book cover, your dog, a fainting goat.  You can talk to someone over and over again before you have any idea what they look like.  It removes outward appearances from the first, second, and even third impressions.  Is Twitter teaching us not to judge a person by the way they look?

I follow very few “famous” people on Twitter (Joss Whedon, Nathan Fillion, Felicia Day and Will Wheaton).  I hang out on Twitter because it has a very rich book and library community.  We talk about books, the issues in books, library issues and programming.  A lot of the people I follow either have their library building, their blog logos or their book covers as their bio/avatar pic.  I often have no idea what these people look like, but it doesn’t matter because we have learned that we share a passion for the same things, have similar politics sometimes (or not but we can handle it as adults), and really, we just want to talk about books.

There are many things to laud about Twitter, and some definite things to question, but I can’t help but wonder what it would be like in the lives of our teens if we could remove that knee jerk need to judge other based on their outer appearance.  That element has been removed from Twitter and I think it would be an interesting social experiment to see how kids would respond in the schools.

One of my Twitter pics.  This is not me.

To some extent, school uniforms are an attempt to minimize this issue.  My Tween goes to a school with uniforms, has for the past 2 years, and I can see ways in which it has been effective in leveling the playing field.  But the truth is, you can still mark your social status by the shoes you wear, the accessories you choose, or by the backpack you carry, for example.  And of course, people like Eleanor could never hid their hair behind a school uniform.  Nor do they cover disabilities.

But what if before a new student came to a school or class we read a letter of introduction out loud to the class, a version of Twitter if you will, allowing students to hear personality before seeing a teen.  Would that change their perception and welcoming of a new student?  Would that make them more open to give someone a chance?

My current Twitter pic/avatar.  This is me.

And let’s not pretend that Twitter is a level playing field, because it is not.  After a while on Twitter you learn that you must develop a persona, it is a type of branding.  There is a greater propensity for witty and snarky on Twitter. But f you spend enough time on Twitter, you can’t help but let real moments of truth, real glimpses of you, bleed through the social feed.  You will say that you are sick and let yourself be vulnerable, there will be an issue that is just to important to you to not speak your mind, you will complain about your family or your friends, you will talk about what your eating.  And of course, when we talk about the books we love – or hate – we are revealing parts of ourselves.  So while Twitter is not an authentic portrait of self, it is also not a complete misrepresentation of self (in most cases).  This is true when forming any new relationship.  When I was dating my husband, he presented his best persona and I did the same.  It was over time that we began to see each other in a variety of situations and got to authentically know each other.  Twitter is like the early stages of any relationship, you are showing a side of yourself, but not the whole story.  However, it is still creating a social phenomenon where people are forming relationships based on personality and interests first, often without even knowing what the other person truly looks like.

I think it would be an interesting experiment for a class to create Twitter accounts without actual pictures.  Have each student tweet for a specified period of time.  Then, see if the students can determine who each Twitter handle is.  Some of the interesting discussions we could have would be:

Were the students easily able to identify each of their classmates based on their words, tone, interests, etc. without a picture?  Were they surprised by any, why or why not?

Did your time spent with your classmates on Twitter change your perceptions of any of your classmates?

Did you feel more or less like you could be yourself when the concern over physical appearance and representation is removed?

Some of the people I have met have turned into genuine, IRL friends.  In fact, most of the people who work with me on this blog I met via the Internet, have now met and spend time with in real life, and I love them dearly.  I don’t know that some of them would have given me a chance if they would have seen more before they got to know me.  Not because they are shallow and mean spirited people, but because we are enculturated in certain ways.  I believe that perhaps Twitter is changing the culture.  Sometimes for good.

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