Recently there has been a spate of people misunderstanding twitter. I hate it when people attempt to mandate what twitter is and isn’t *for* but I think a little thought and debate about how it is in general used is a good thing.
In my mind twitter is very much like going down the pub. It is one of those modern places that manage to cultivate a mixed audience, mates out for a few pints and a chat, the odd suit who is always selling, the TV is on set to a rolling news channel and you might see a celebrity wander in. It is also probably in an area of town that has a certain sort of reputation as every so often someone unsavoury wanders up to the window and tries to tempt you to their palace of porn and trojans.
Most of the time you are there, you’re just having a chat with your social circle about whatever is happening in the world at the time. An actor or writer may wander past and you might say to the person next to you that you thought the last thing they did was great. If you are next to them at the bar when you go to order drinks and catch their eye you might even ask them a question about what they are working on or drop a compliment.
What you wouldn’t do in a real pub is shout across the lounge bar at them “You are a talentless, dull and should never work again” as that would be exceptionally rude. This is seen often in our fictional boozer, twitter, someone wants to say something about someone and includes their username as an ‘at mention’. The person cited isn’t being particularly egotistical by looking at the tweets that mention them, most clients include a column or page for replies and mentions and twitter itself will email you about them. If someone shouted an insult at me across the pub I would be rightly annoyed, so it always strikes me as odd when people are surprised that the tweet they sent saying bad things, about the person whose username they included, gets that person riled and they reply with ire. If you don’t want someone to get pissed off and say angry things to you, don’t shove your ill opinion in their face.
Later on one of your group says something a bit off colour, something not quite PC. The social feedback engine kicks in and it is explained why that isn’t acceptable and that you don’t really want to hear it even if it is what they truly believe thankyouverymuch. As the mood re-lightens some jokes are made around the subject.
This often happens on twitter, for example some racist thug tries to get their followers wound up about something and the reaction from the rest of the crowd is a mixed of informed debate, dismissal and derision. While it can be heart warming to see a topic trending for the opposite reason to the one intended, I do wonder sometimes about how far it can go and how vicious it can get. In situations like this the equivalent in our fictional pub is it ending up as a group of people standing round the person and shouting in their face. However abhorrent these people are there comes the point where they should be left to slink back to their dank slimy pits and left alone.
If a situation like that get out of hand and people start getting threatening then the law might arrive. This is where we have a more complicated problem online than in a physical space. Tone of voice is very effective at helping to communicate how seriously we mean what we say. It helps distinguish proper threats from jokes and sarcasm for example. This is a lot harder to get across in text, especially with a restricted character limit and there have been famous examples of the law not getting this. We need to somehow impress upon the legislators that regulation of ‘speech’ online needs reforming so that the abusers and threat makers are still dealt with but you can’t be banged up for making a joke.
Then someone on the table next to you gets a message from a mate, something is happening on the other side of town. Glancing at the TV there is no mention. More people are hearing about it and the talk is of almost nothing else (apart from the suit who is still trying to see someone his Acme Snake Oil). It is difficult to separate fact from fiction at this point but you instinctively trust some things more than others, because of who said them, or who they say said them.
Twitter comes into its own at times of breaking news, it is much faster than traditional news gathering but this isn’t always positive. While social media (and throughout I imagine this post applies to networks other than twitter) will bring lots information in very quickly it will have been through little corroboration and fact checking. You have to make the judgement call about what to believe and what to scoff at. These days there are lots of journalists out there who bring their experience and training to what they are receiving via twitter and only passing on the bits they think their followers should know. They also apply that information into their work and often will keep twitter informed while waiting for their story to go out. On the other hand there are the standard set of people hanging around being credulous or disingenuous so be careful what you accept as true. After all you wouldn’t believe everything some random stranger told you in the pub would you?