Foreword (posted 29th Jan)
Yesterday I had a lot of feedback about this post. Some was from people who appeared to understand my point and they were all positive about the post. Some related to @john_doe and resulted in me apologising to him and anonymising him. (More about this at the bottom of the post.) There were a couple of “conversations” that were entirely fruitless and I wish I hadn’t bothered with them; people simply haranguing you is pretty tiresome and tiring.
However, I did have one long conversation with another tweeter who asked me not to name them in this post. We talked about the term “troll” and how it is becoming used to casually, how it should be reserved for those people who display quite extreme behaviour and who are explicitly threatening and offensive. And I agree with this. @john_doe’s behaviour wasn’t “trolling” by that definition and I have made minor edits to the post below, removing the reference to him as a troll and a description of his activity as trolling.
I have left the (anonymised) tweets in place though because the behaviour still highlights what I was actually writing about, which is the lack of respect and manners on Twitter. The post was not about @john_doe or whether he was right to take issue with @QuintinForbes’ tweet (although it was about the manner in which he did it).
What follows is the original post with the two edits referred to above.
End of foreword.
Things are changing over at Facebook. Whether publicly stated or not, the company is concerned that young people are leaving in droves. Their playground come youth club has been invaded by their parents and grandparents, and, for them, it’s not the place it once was. Which may be no bad thing for Facebook and its shareholders: older people have more disposable income and perhaps now that advertising revenue will start to arrive in the desired quantities.
But this isn’t a post about Facebook; I’ve mentioned that purely to highlight the fact that social media sites do change in demonstrable ways and so perhaps when people have commented recently that Twitter is changing, then perhaps it’s not just nostalgia talking.
The way in which they say it’s changing is that it’s becoming a more hostile place. I’m not sure that’s entirely true but, equally, I’m not saying they’re wrong. Twitter’s always been a place with rough neighbourhoods: one doesn’t have to stray far from one’s timeline to find all sorts of unpleasantness. Furthermore, while the term ‘troll’ has slipped into common usage over the last year, the noun and those it identifies have been around since before I joined Twitter.
What has changed, of course, is the number of people using Twitter. And amongst those new users are more people who don’t see the need for etiquette and manners. They may form the same proportion of users but even then there are undoubtedly more of them. And some of those new tweeters, often those hiding behind anonymity, are particularly vile. (Although what’s notable is what cowardly specimens they turn out to be when ousted: see the cases of the trolls of Mary Beard and, more recently, Caroline Criado-Perez.)
However, for me personally, not much has changed. No one’s ever been really nasty to me, apart from some accidentally riled feminists, although from time to time someone will pick me up on something I’ve said but that’s always happened. The people for whom I think it has changed, those people who perhaps not coincidentally are the ones observing this shift, are those with a large number of followers.
In my experience, those with a lot of followers tend to fall into one of three categories: they are a celebrity or well-known through the media; an expert or authority in a given field; or they are funny. And for some reason, because these people are popular on Twitter, other people – “trolls” – seem to think they needn’t be polite or considerate when dealing with them.
What prompted me to write this today was an exchange between @QuintinForbes and another Twitter user. Now, I happen to think @QuintinForbes is the funniest man on Twitter. I try not to retweet him too often as the people who follow me must have got the message by now and are either following him or don’t want to.
Today, he posted the following tweet:
I found that funny, favourited it and moved on.
Later on, I became aware of this reply to some people complimenting @QuintinForbes’s tweet:
Now, I didn’t think the joke was homophobic. It’s not a joke I’d have made myself partly because I am terrified of causing unintentional offence but mainly because I’m not that funny. The challenge to @QuintinForbes was quite brusque and, I’d say, impolite. It’s evidence of the behaviour I’m talking about. @QuintinForbes responded as follows:
And here comes the response from let’s call him @john_doe. Note that he has put a full stop in front of @QuintinForbes’s username. This is the point for me at which this becomes more unpleasant; the full stop ensures that all of @john_doe’s followers can see the conversation, not just those following him and @QuintinForbes. To me, it looks like ganging up.
It’s also worth noting that @john_doe is under the impression that he represents all gay men. Not so.
To which @john_doe simply responds:
I assume Quintin had had enough by this point (I certainly would have) but he does go on to tweet:
Meanwhile, @john_doe tweets:
Thus, having been unpleasant and rude, @john_doe then blocks @QuintinForbes, as if to say to his followers that @QuintinForbes was the one who had been pestering him! He also uses the term ‘uncle tom’ – by which I assume he means to imply @QuintinForbes is a stereotyped gay man, which is unnecessary and unfounded – but which is a term in itself which I believe is far more offensive to black people. @john_doe is evidently happy to take offence but is less concerned about giving it.
I’ve provided this lengthy example to highlight what kind, decent people whose only intention is to make people laugh are having to put up with: people telling them their jokes aren’t funny or telling them what they meant by their joke. Whilst it might not be trolling as such, it strikes me that this is the thin edge of the wedge.
Last week, a chap just a nice as Quintin, @mrnickharvey, was driven off Twitter by trolling, another victim of one person’s need to address their own – apparently significant – failings by anonymously persecuting those who just want to bring a bit of happiness into other people’s lives.
I really wish I had a solution to all this but, of course, I don’t. What I will say to all those popular, funny, well-intentioned people, is please don’t let these trolls, ranging from the impolite and rude through to the vicious and threatening, drive you off Twitter. If you go, they will have won.
Post script Subsequent to publishing this post, @QuintinForbes has told me that he first tweeted his ‘Fruit toast’ joke in 2012 and none of his gay followers has ever taken offence before.
Update, 28th Jan (the next day), at 22:45
So, I learnt a few things today. Firstly, that people hear the word troll and think immediately of the extreme end of trolling. That being the case, I shouldn’t have called @john_doe a troll. However, his exchange did illustrate what I was trying to point out: the lack of respect, politeness and consideration that I see more and more on Twitter. And, of course, I accepted that that I had not shown respect, politeness or consideration for @john_doe in using his tweets. I’ve apologised for that and changed the post to use @john_doe as the name.
Secondly, I’ve learnt that no matter how patient you are, some people will not enter a discussion but simply carry on having an argument. I wasted a lot of time on that, this afternoon. But, for the record, I was not saying that @john_doe was trolling in his initial tweet to @QuintinForbes (although I think that’s clear in the post).
And I’ve remembered that everyone has family and friends and partners, and when you upset one person, you upset a lot. (People around me have been similarly angered by the tweets to me and comments on this post.) So, be more considerate (see point 1).
There have been a few people willing to discuss this with me and I’m grateful for that. And at least I tried with those who wouldn’t talk to me, just at me.
There is one final huge irony to all this, especially since I’ve been called a hypocrite by more than one person today, and that relates to @john_doe’s reply to @QuintinForbes. Remember this:
Here are some tweets from @john_doe’s timeline two weeks earlier: