The Girl On The Subway

A few weeks ago, something pretty thoughtless went up on the Tumblr Staff Blog.

The Staff has a weekly feature, Tumblr Tuesday, which is usually silly and fun, a way to get people connecting with each other, and to make the Staff seem a bit more personable and friendly. On 12 January, 2010, a staff member wrote a post which included this:

This ever happen to you? I dreamt in Tumblr last night.

I walked around the city, covered in little hearts and reblog buttons. I showed my appreciation for a beautiful sunset by reaching out and poking its like button. I saw some delicious tacos, hit reblog, and had some of my very own. This was a world I could live in.

Fast-forward to this morning: I was tired, disheveled, and there was a really pretty girl on the subway. To show my appreciation, I went to push her like button. Didn’t work. Hit it again. Nothing. I tried and tried, but nothing was working right.

Long story short, now I’m in jail. I used my phone call to select today’s five picks: [lists five blog recommendations]

Here’s where things started to get interesting.

People started pushing back on this almost immediately. Posts were written about experiences of being harassed on public transit, people linked to older writings about harassment, and Tumblr members questioned why the staff thought this was appropriate, talking about the very real harassment women face on public transit, and the fact that some Tumblr users are survivors of harassment, and that seeing it treated as a joke can be traumatic.

I wrote an entry, “On Being the Girl On the Subway,” which was reblogged over 100 times. Here’s an excerpt:

“What did you have to go changing seats for, you stupid fat bitch,” he said. “What’s your fucking problem?” I will remember the smell of his hot, sour breath in my face forever.

We were getting closer and closer to my house.

I knew I couldn’t get off the bus. If I did, and I walked home, then this man would know where I lived. Fuck, he might just follow me off the bus. It was the middle of the day. No one would be around.

Many of those reblogs included additions about personal experiences with harassment.

A meme was starting to spread; people saw something they objected to, and they started writing about it. Many people personalized it, talking about how it intersected with their own experiences. Others went more general, talking about issues like harassment and how they contribute to rape culture. It was actually a rather fascinating conversation.

And then, the Tumblr Staff started deleting uncomplimentary notes and reblogs[1. If you aren’t a Tumblr user and are wondering what in the heck I am talking about; posts on Tumblrs can be “reblogged” by users who repost the text and can add notes and comments, and they can also “like” a post, which registers as a note. Additionally, on this particular staff post, answers were enabled, which means that people could respond with a note without reblogging.]. We could watch our responses being taken down, but the “likes” of our responses remained, making it look like the people who had liked what we said were liking the original post. Furthermore, the nasty notes left in response to us like “…way to make something out of nothing, unfollowed” were left in the timeline on the staff post. Soon, it got to the point where any response we made failed to show up; we were, effectively, blocked.

I should note that Tumblr users do not have this capacity. If someone reblogs something of mine and I don’t like it, I can’t take the note saying that the post has been reblogged off. If I have answers enabled and someone says something mean, it stays on that post. So, the Tumblr staff clearly has a privilege here.

And they clearly abused it to shut down conversation. I have no idea if one staffer was doing it, or if it was a group decision, but I think it’s pretty appalling that they did this, making sure that other Tumblr users wouldn’t be able to follow the discussion sparked by the post from the original post.

And the staff didn’t respond to any of these responses, either. They also didn’t respond to letters sent by several Tumblr users asking about the situation, and requesting that some sort of response be made. I wrote this:

  1. I would like you, please, to restore the negative notes and reblogs (unless they are abusive in nature, for example threatening harm or suggesting that the staffer who wrote that post should experience harassment to know what it feels like). I think that they should be preserved, so that people can read and judge for themselves. In addition, some of the notes/likes look strange and out of context now, because they refer to notes and responses which were deleted.
  2. I would appreciate an apology. An apology for thinking that this joke would be a good idea, and an apology for silencing Tumblr users who called it out. I think that another Staff Post would be a good way to do that.
  3. I’d also like you to consider how you can prevent things like this from happening in the future.

And didn’t hear back.

I point to this incident not to call out the Tumblr Staff; I already did that, repeatedly, all over Tumblr, and never received a response. I do this to point out how insidious this type of attitude is. People do make jokes about things like harassment, all the time, and when they are asked not to, they say it’s just a joke and that people should lighten up. They don’t realize that what they are doing reinforces rape culture. Every time you say it’s funny to “push a girl’s like buttons,” you’re enabling and justifying the actions of the groper on the subway.

And when that doesn’t work, they silence the people trying to have a discussion. This happens every day, in all kinds of settings. The Tumblr Staff just did what the rest of society does; it told us that our words were not fit for public consumption, because they challenged something.