What Role Should Teachers Play in Policing the Net?
A drama unfolded on the messaging service Twitter last week after a bipolar woman posted a note that she intended as a joke, but was perceived by some people as a threat against her child. Soon, police were at her doorstep. The incident raises some tough questions about what role Internet users should play in policing each other’s behavior, and the special role of teachers in protecting the welfare of children.
I heard about the incident a few minutes after it had taken place from a friend on Twitter. He had mentioned that a situation was unfolding at the house of a woman who goes by the name of Thordora on Twitter. I wasn’t familiar with her, but I went to her Twitter account to see what happened. (Her account has now been locked down to the public, so unless you know her, you won’t find much information at the link anymore.) When I visited the page, though, I saw a series of tweets from someone who was clearly upset about something and angry at another Twitter user for apparently calling the cops on her.
Soon enough, I was able to piece together the series of events that had unfolded. First, more about Thordora. She’s a blogger who happens to be bipolar and the mother of a toddler, both facts that she mentioned prominently on her Twitter homepage. Looking at her tweets, you could tell she had a scathing sense of humor. One recent tweet of hers, though, had apparently just caused an uproar:
“If I smother my 3 year old, who will NOT GO TO F****** SLEEP, is it REALLY a crime?”
In the context of many of her other postings, it seemed like a joke. But the swearing, the use of ALL CAPS and the word “smother” really caught me off-guard. Was she joking? Probably, but honestly, I just didn’t know. Another Twitter user, a woman who blogs about her family and uses the name Feelslikehome, saw Thordora’s post and started talking about it. A conversation ensued among several people who were concerned that Thordora’s tweet was not a joke. Feelslikehome says she tried to contact Thordora directly but without any luck, so she contacted Twitter instead. Twitter, it appears, then alerted authorities. Police came to Thordora’s house late that night and demanded to see her kids. They were fast asleep in their rooms.
Thordora then posted an angry blog post in response to the incident. (Warning, there’s foul language on the post, so you might want avoid reading it if you’re in a classroom.) Thordora wrote:
Those of you who KNOW ME know the relationship I have with my daughters. You know the relationships you have with your children. Loving, frustrated, awed, annoyed, angry, blissful.
Tonight, as always, my evil mini-me did her “not going to sleep without one last hug” routine.
Tonight, as always, I yelled, threatened and cajoled her back into bed.
Tonight, as I’ve done in the past, as other parents have done in many ways, I asked if it was ok to smother her.
Which, if you know me, or anyone with my sense of black humor, is a joke born of frustration, annoyance, and yes, LOVE.Tonight this woman (link removed because enough is enough), who I foolishly followed on Twitter, who likely doesn’t even know me, had someone in LA call the cops.
So far, more than 50 people have posted replies to her blog, and their opinions are all over the map. Some people back Thordora and were angry that a complete stranger couldn’t take a joke and had the gall to interfere with the situation. Others were supporters of Feelslikehome, saying that any threat against a child must be taken seriously, not unlike the way the TSA won’t tolerate any joke about terrorism or bombs while going through airport security.
The incident has gotten a lot of play on Twitter and on blogs that discuss online communities. One of my colleagues at NPR, Linton Weeks, wrote about the incident online. BJ Fogg, director of Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab, told him, “We are connecting two people largely through text. Text is an impoverished medium for communicating emotion, intent, real meaning…. We are connecting to a much wider range of people who don’t know us, as well as to those who live close to us geographically. There is a flattening of relationships.”
Perhaps the one comment that struck me the most came from a woman named Adrienne. She posted a reply to Thordora’s blog post in support of the police coming to her house:
Cry me a river, you were inconvenienced to open your door to the cops? Too bad. Idle threats are not always so idle. You should be happy nothing more has come of it. I am a mandated reporter as a school district employee, so if I had seen that tweet I too would have done the same thing. Better you to watch your mouth, and calm yourself. Then someone else to ignore the wellbeing of a child.
The fact that Adrienne works for a school district made me wonder: as more teachers use social media for professional and personal use, how far outside the classroom walls does their role as a guardian of children extend? There’s no doubt that if a teacher heard a perceived threat against one of their students - or any child, for that matter - in their community, they would likely report it. But how does that responsibility play out in online communities? Should teachers be expected to take an active role in responding to any and every possible threat against a child, even when there’s an extreme likelihood that the comment in question was a joke? It seems like the answer is yes, but I must admit - I don’t know what I would have done if I had seen Thordora’s tweet arrive in real time. Twitter is full of sarcasm and dark humor, and the way she phrased it as a question seems to accentuate that it was a joke. But is it worth the risk of doing nothing?
I just don’t know what I would have done. And I’m really troubled by that. -andy