In the wake of the popular and controversial #ihadanabortion hashtag, critics are asking (again) whether tweeting about abortion is "trivializing." They don't understand that Twitter is a medium like any other.
The hashtag, started by reproductive rights advocate Steph Herold, has inspired varying degrees of old-media hand-wringing. On PBS's To The Contrary, Karen Czarnecki said women should have found "a more appropriate place to discuss this," like an "online board." Melinda Henneberger of Politics Daily added, "the message of tweeting is that it is no big deal, and it's not a private matter." And in a CNN segment on the question, "Is abortion something to tweet about," Carol Costello asks — apparently quoting conservatives but adding her own ultra-skeptical facial expressions — "how can you have a conversation about something so important via tweet?"
Of course, some of the outrage stems from the idea that abortion is so shameful it shouldn't be talked about in any venue — an idea Herold specifically set out to combat. But some of it seems to be Twitter-specific — according to Costello, Czarnecki, and Henneberger, tweeting about something automatically makes it trivial. This is a common criticism of Twitter, usually leveled by people who don't use it very much and don't get that, like any medium, it's as serious or unserious as its users. When I asked Herold why she chose this particular forum to get her message out, she pointed me to a Feminists for Choice interview wherein she explained,
Since I have a decent sized following on Twitter (around 3,000 followers), I thought that venue would be the best way to reach as many people as possible instead of say, emailing all my contacts with this idea. There are many, many websites that allow women to tell their stories in longer form (such as ImNotSorry.net, 45 million voices, Women on Web, to name a few), but I've never seen this kind of campaign on Twitter. It's easier to write a sentence or two about your abortion than it is to write a blog post. Twitter opens up this conversation to a broader audience - it's not just for the pro-choice community like many abortion story websites. By using Twitter, this hashtag has the potential to reach a new audience, to reach women who haven't been given a venue to share their stories.
Malcolm Gladwell and others have questioned the importance of Twitter as an engine of social change, but the fact remains that it's become a very easy and quick way to have a very broad-based conversation. The substance of such conversations varies, but just because they sometimes revolve around Justin Bieber doesn't mean they can't also encompass serious issues. Nobody says the Times shouldn't cover abortion rights because it also publishes stuffing recipes. And now old media types have more or less accepted that blogs can take on serious topics, though that acceptance was a long time coming. The idea that new media are unsuitable for the communication of real ideas is as old as Plato, and the fact that any communication technology's reputation for silliness and illegitimacy dissipates as soon as it's widely used should tell us something about human habits of mind: we like to deride any medium in which we're not totally comfortable.
But Twitter's just that, a medium, and it can be a place for serious discussion if we make it that way. In answer to CNN's question, RH Reality Check's Amie Newman writes, "If women who have abortions are tweeting about those abortions - and others who support keeping abortion safe and legal in this country are tweeting support — then, yes, abortion is something to tweet about." And, explains DC Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton on To The Contrary, "What you tweet about are things that are on your mind." Like any medium, Twitter's only as trivial or serious as the human brain, which has a boundless capacity to be both.