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What’s Wrong with Twitter? » Observations of an Edinburgh Chap
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Aug 042013

The Intersection of 36th and TrollWhat’s wrong with Twitter? Well, it’s the same thing that’s wrong with Facebook, SnapChat, or ask.fm. It’s the same thing that’s wrong with the television, and cinema, and the telephone. It’s the same thing that’s wrong with any corporate ICT network. Any data transport mechanism, for that matter.

IT folks have a witticism that “There would be nothing wrong with the network if it weren’t for the users.” It’s actually less an acerbic comment, more a wistful desire. It says that the data transport mechanism would be absolutely fine if it weren’t for the people who are trying to screw it up.

So, what’s wrong with Twitter (and all those other things I mentioned in the first paragraph)? It’s that a subset of the population has an apparently overwhelming propensity to behave like dicks.

I’d like to bring two events to your consciousness. One you will have heard of, one you may not have.

Recently, a person by the name of Caroline Criado-Perez ran a campaign to feature women as part of the design of Bank of England banknotes. Whether as a result of the campaign or not, the next £10 note will feature Jane Austen. Ms Criado-Perez became the target of a stream of vile tweets, receiving hundreds and hundreds of graphic descriptions of personal corporal violations.

In the same week, men’s lifestyle magazine GQ printed a special edition issue with 5 different covers, one for each of the talent-vacuum robopuppets One Direction. GQ received a storm of abuse from the band’s fans containing graphic descriptions of personal corporal violations.

The Criado-Perez incident has garnered much interest in the media. A range of commenters and bloggers have each weighed in with their perspective on this particular event. But many commenters have concentrated on the fact that Criado-Perez’s attackers were male. They have erroneously turned it into a “men abusing women” story.

This is a crass oversimplification.

The GQ example demonstrates neatly that the internet is not just overloaded with men using their keyboard as shields while they take pot shots at women. It demonstrates that women too are capable of unleashing streams of vile messages bereft of any form of self-censorship. The fact that the girls abusing GQ editors are talking about covering them in acid rather than bodily fluids does not make the threat any less real or personal.

What seems to be being ignored though is that the GQ incident is a contradiction of an allegation that the internet is in some way a bastion of male power.

Delving into Twitter further, we see that there doesn’t even have to be a sex-difference at all. The ongoing warfare between the “Directioners” (fans of the talent-vacuum robopuppets) and fans of Canadian androgynous screecher Justin Beiber (“Beliebers”) is a largely all-female affair. We know that men will sling mud at each other ad infinitum, but what Twitter has shown is that women (or at least pubescent teen girls) are quite keen to get in on the act.

This also is not the result of a notoriety gradient. It’s not “normals” taking pot shots at “celebrities”. The internet also carries a vast amount of more interpersonal abuse, where school classmates attack each other through anonymised communication providers such as ask.fm.

This isn’t even a social media phenomenon. Posting of deliberately inciteful or inflammatory material (largely made illegal by the Computer Misuse Act, by the way) is known as “trolling”. This term has come into more popular vernacular recently, but was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1992, and traces its origins back to the early text-only messageboard days of the internet in the mid-to-late 1980s.

So the question “What’s wrong with Twitter” stretches back to twenty-odd years before the service was even born. It is – as is so often the case with media bandwagoneering and populist outrage – the wrong question.

The question is “What’s wrong with the dicks using these mass communication networks?”

Well there, dear reader, the answer is in the question. The unfortunate side effect is that the internet has connected the world’s dicks together. And – just to be clear – here I’m using the word “dick” as a noun for someone who behaves badly, not someone equipped with a penis.

The internet, which enables mass immediate broadcast communication from individuals, has facilitated the publishing of every single thought anyone’s ever had. (Yes, including these thoughts of mine, I know)

It’s all so much noise.

But like an overheard comment in a pub, if the noise is about you, and it’s negative, you’ll hear it. And be upset by it. But the difference is that in an overheard conversation the commenter knows that the victim is there, and the victim has adequate opportunity to remonstrate with them. The internet allows anyone to connect. A keyboard and a large screen in a small study in a suburban house facilitates the kind of dissociation from the effects of a hurtful post that make the poster less likely to employ self-censorship. The instant, always-there nature of mobile internet access enables immediate commenting, rather than enforcing time to consider.

I’m not for one second advocating that targets of internet abuse “just put up with it” as some kind of “cost” of being online. I’m not suggesting mass “blocking” of hate-peddlers. I’m certainly not suggesting censorship. And let’s be clear: a “report abuse” button will not work, as Facebook users will attest. Abuse reports from 300m users will overwhelm the staff employed [Warning: Language] to process them. We can’t deal with this systemically. It’s too difficult to create an automated mechanism of sifting the abuse from genuine discussion. To paraphrase the popular saying, “One man’s discussion comment is another’s hurtful abuse.” It’s not a matter of free speech, it’s a matter of sympathy for the views of another. And “sympathy for the views” does not mean “simpering acceptance,” it means being able to separate the content of the argument from the emotional response to the argument.

Unfortunately, what I’m suggesting is one of the hardest things to enable. I’m suggesting that people stop being dicks. People need to understand that they don’t have to write what they’re thinking right now. That they don’t have to send a message of hate to someone they’ve never met. That if they wouldn’t say whatever they’re about to post to their mother, then perhaps they shouldn’t put it on a broadcast medium that allows everyone in the whole developed world to see it. People need to think about their audience. Put themselves in their recipient’s shoes.

And that’s probably what’s wrong with the internet. That we as a race are using the impersonality of the technology as an excuse for a failure to exercise any empathy. And censorship, “report to moderator” buttons, blocking, or abstaining in protest, will never fix that. People, whatever their age, sex, location, creed, or class, just need to stop being dicks to each other.

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