Frances Bell

home at last – for all the mes


The Flexible concept of the Terrible Sea lion

I saw this cartoon again a week ago and it reminded me of my first reaction to it so I went off to see what some others thought.

The Terrible Sealion
David Hopkins gave the following response to the Terrible Sea lion cartoon

“I don’t tweet, but I’ve found the Sea Lion strip quite thought-provoking. The most interesting thing about it to me is that it’s quite ambiguous to me which of the parties is supposed to be “in the wrong”. The general reception of the strip seems to be “oh yes, I recognise that archetype, sea-lioning is an obviously terrible thing to do”. But that’s not at all how I read it originally.

If the person in the car was saying “I don’t mind most queer people, but transgenders? I could do without transgenders”, the sea-lion character would be a heroic person standing up against off-hand degrading comments of a bigot. The sea-lion character is, in fact, unfailingly civil, just as they claim. There are no ad-hominems, no doxxing, no abuse or threats. The woman never justifies her initial comment, or apologises for it either. The sea-lion’s following around of the people and invasion of their private space isn’t really a great metaphor for Twitter or Facebook, considering that those are explicitly public spaces where users can disengage freely at any time (and/or switch to a more private mode of communication). If tweets or status comments are bothering you at breakfast or in bed… maybe just put your dang phone away?

I dunno. Maybe my objection is based on not having experienced such an interaction myself. Like I said, I’ve never chosen to engage in the Twitter-sphere, so I don’t get random internet strangers challenging me on my assertions much. I’m aware of my “privilege” in this domain.”

When I first saw the cartoon, I found it to be ambiguous too and perhaps that’s its value. Apparently, sea-lioning has been adopted as a verb making it more negative but just as ambiguous. So I can imagine that some would want to argue the toss about the ‘real meaning’ of the Terrible Sea lion but claiming of terms is an unedifying but common practice on the social web as far as I can tell. I would want nothing to do with that.

My default explanation for tetchy disagreement on the social web is misunderstanding exacerbated by assumptions and reduced social cues. In relatively closed groups, there may be shared language and customs, an understanding of ‘what we do around here’ and even explicit or implicit figures of authority who pronounce on who is in the wrong. And groups can implode – as Clay Shirky says ‘you have to find a way to spare the group from scale’
What we see on Twitter is people doing a lot of different things without always realising what others in our network are doing. There can be tight groups socialising, acquaintances chatting, people looking for ideas or people new to them, or people organising campaigns to bring down the wrong sort of person (in their shared view) who has poked their head too far above the parapet. My default explanation does not work for this latter group but I think that most people on the web don’t have evil plans. The asymmetry of relations on Twitter (that you can follow someone without them following you) can work for and against a happy Twitter experience. Unfortunately, when people engage in group behaviours on an open network like Twitter problems can occur. I think that the best possible solution to that involves (and this advice is aimed first and foremost to myself):
increased tolerance – if someone questions us, why not assume good faith (to start with at least) and just answer them politely? If you were referring to them inappropriately, why not apologise and take it from there?
decreased sensitivity – when problems occur, why not consider the possibility that you may be at least partially to blame? they may even return the favour – and remember that if you follow someone solely to monitor their behaviour, don’t be surprised if they don’t like it
ignoring the sealion – if none of that works then ignore the offended or offending person by power of will, muting or blocking

Here are the collective nouns for a group of sea lions
A bob of sea lions, A colony of sea lions, A crash of sea lions, A flock of sea lions, A harem of sea lions ………….. a group of females, A herd of sea lions, A hurdle of sea lions, A pod of sea lions, A raft of sea lions, A rookery of sea lions, A team of sea lions.

One last thing – if you are going to be a sea lion in the positive or negative sense, it’s probably a good idea to fly solo where possible – noone wants a crash of sealions.


francesbell • February 15, 2015

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  1. Dr M Funes February 16, 2015 - 2:52 pm Reply

    Well, I never! Who would have thought that the little sea lion would cause such uproar in the Interwebz 🙂 or that it had been ‘verbed’ (dear God when will we stop butchering the English language for the sake of a headline?)

    I quite like the idea of sea-lioning as an activity. I understand the ambiguity and it reminds me of the drama CyberBully I watched recently which played on just this ambiguity. You talk about: Be more tolerant, don’t be so sensitive and you can always ignore the sea lion. These are useful strategies and yet what we are not foregrounding here is the emotional toll for those on the receiving end of ‘sea-lioning’. Yes, the sea lion may have good intent and may only be trying to be included in a conversation – I see that. Yet, at what point do we get to exercise our freedom to associate with people we choose? What interests me about the strategies you outline, and they are the only ones available to us publicly online, is that there is no choice to sea-lion the sea lion. If the only consequence to their behaviour is silence (and silence that cannot easily be interpreted by the sea lion) then how do we ever establish norms of interaction where all parties can be respected and heard? When I block somebody they may be silenced in my world, but I am also silenced in theirs. It saddens me that we cannot find a option to enable us to say in the public arena that is Twitter: I am uncomfortable with your behaviour, can we find other ways of talking to each other? Mostly, when this happens to me I just connect with my inner brat and want to say in a loud voice: i wan’t talking to you!

    Thanks for this post it shows me how complex mediated human interaction is and how we are so far from finding ways that allow us to engage with our differences…

  2. Well, I never! Who would have thought that the little sea lion would cause such uproar in the Interwebz :) or that it had been
  3. francesbell February 16, 2015 - 3:15 pm Reply

    Thanks for responding Mariana. I was really just thinking out loud about the very difficult business of public communication. You are right about its complexity. In framing some personal heuristics, I was putting the onus on the personal acknowledging myself as doer and done by because there are two behaviours that are very difficult for me to deal with. The first is (rare in my experience) the person who is determined to damage another person and will use anonymity or anything else to do so. The second is when someone has a one-dimensional view of conflict and seems only able to conceive of themselves as a victim rather than a (possibly unintentional) perpetrator of damage to another. I think I would be happier with an online culture where we expected and planned for misunderstanding and were ready to resolve it. Anyway, off I go to respond to your lovely post.

    • Dr M Funes February 16, 2015 - 3:47 pm Reply

      Yes, I like how you express it ‘one-dimensional’ view of conflict where we can conceive of ourselves only as the victim and fail to see how our own behaviour can be construed as sea-lioning… Only after reading your comment I remembered that post I wrote for DS106 at York College ‘Your stalker, my friend’ ( where I considered some of this issues and used the Terrible Sea Lion cartoon for the first time.
      I do see how our inability to find ways of interacting in these situations beyond ‘you are blocked’ leaves us feeling like Brianna Wu’s vending machine – the light inside is broken but I am still working. ( We can do better, I have to believe.

  4. Yes, I like how you express it ‘one-dimensional’ view of conflict where we can conceive of ourselves only as the victim and fail to see

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