Homophobia on Twitter: Can this website end it?

Can a website change our bad habits by pointing them out to us?
Written by Tyler Falk, Contributor

As a journalist, Twitter is a fantastic resource to keep up with big news stories, stories that major outlets haven't picked up on, or stories I wouldn't find otherwise. But it has a dark side. One that goes deeper than half-naked spam bots.

If you've ever done a Twitter search for any topic that's popular at the moment, you know what I'm talking about. Twitter (our society) has a problem, especially when it comes to the use of homophobic language. And Nohomophobes.com wants to bring these bad habits to light.

The site, created by the University of Alberta's Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services (iSMSS), tracks terms like "that's so gay," "dyke," "no homo," and the most common of the four terms, "faggot." Since the site began tracking the terms on July 5, 2012, "faggot" has been used over 2.5 million times. Today, already, it's been used nearly 10,000 times. The site tracks, with real-time graphs, daily, weekly, and all-time usage of the terms. Below the graphs are tweets from people using the terms in real time to help visitors understand the context of the usage.

But can a website change our social behaviors by pointing them out to us?

"The idea of the website is to really serve as a social mirror that reflects the pervasive and damaging use of what we call casual homophobia in our society," said Kristopher Wells, associate director of iSMSS.

The problem is, according to Wells, that people are using these terms in casual, not often hurtful, ways. When I was scanning the site, a lot of tweets were from high school kids complaining about school. And while usage of the terms might not be meant to harm (though, of course, there is plenty of that too), it can have a major negative impact. When you see how often casual homophobic terms are used, the idea is that you reconsider your own use of the terms.

"What the website then becomes is a call to action," he said. "It is about people no longer participating in this kind of casual homophobia."

Will this site end homophobia? Surely not. But what's interesting is that while Twitter has brought our bad habits to light as a society, it also has the ability to track these trends in a way that could, eventually, lead to meaningful change.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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