New technologies always throw up new vocabularies. Recently, we have learned the term ‘twitter storm’ to denote a surge of typically acrimonious comment on the twitter social media site. We also now have ‘trolls’, and this is an interesting example of how the new language has become old enough to mutate. A few years back a troll was someone who posted deliberately provocative comments on internet forums in order to garner a reaction – the implication being that the poster did not really think these things. Increasingly, though, a troll is understood to be someone posting offensive, abusive or threatening remarks, with no suggestion that this is done purely for effect.
Of course trolls tweet and tweeters troll, and we have seen the effects this can have this week with the apparent suicide of Brenda Leyland. She had been tweeting abusive messages to the family of Madeleine McCann, the child who disappeared on a family holiday in Portugal seven years ago. The dead woman had been confronted by a journalist a few days before her death. This in turn led to the journalist becoming the subject of a vitriolic twitter campaign. And recently twitter trolls who made rape and death threats against feminist campaigners were jailed.
Meanwhile, in the fallout from the sacking of cricketer Kevin Pietersen – which I posted about a while back - continued when he published his autobiography this week. Much of the controversy concerns tweets that he sent, and a bogus twitter account set up by his then team mates in his name which reduced him to tears. His former team mates immediately took to twitter to give their reactions.
Twitter is not, of course, just the domain of trolls and celebrities. In September 2013 some 200 million users worldwide sent 400 million tweets per day. It has become a near-compulsory conduit for political and corporate leaders. Really quite important statements are released on twitter by, for example, British Prime Minister David Cameron, as they are by Barack Obama. No self-respecting Chief Executive fails to tweet, nor any corporate PR department. And twitter can also provide a vehicle for whistle blowers, trade unions and activists.
We should not however conclude that this is just a neutral technology that may be used for any and every purpose. It is a very particular medium with very particular rules, most notably the 140 character rule. In this way it has a very particular effect: it is a vehicle for simplification. Much has been made of the issue of anonymity and the way this encourages ‘trolls’ to behave in ways that they might not otherwise do. But it makes all who use it behave in ways they would not otherwise do, by stripping out all nuance. The two are linked: for the trolls, ethical sensitivity is flattened out; for the ‘responsible tweeters’ complexity is flattened out.
This is not an elitist lament for ‘dumbing down’. Twitter and other social media are not egalitarian, despite the claims of starry-eyed internet libertarians. They give the illusion of a voice for everyone, but their very ubiquity means that no voice is heard. Sure, anyone can open a twitter account or a facebook page or set up a blog, but that does not mean that the old structures of power have disappeared. Would you be reading this blog if it were not for my book and its publisher? Would that book have been published if I did not hold a university position? There is no democratization in social media, but there is a very powerful illusion of it. Everyone has a voice, so no one can be heard.
So when several friends and colleagues have suggested that I should start to tweet, not least to publicize this blog, I haven’t been keen. When I ask to see how they use twitter I am always amazed that they see a value in it. To me it just seems meaningless. I can’t imagine gaining anything from ‘following’ them, even though they are people who I like or whose work interests me. So by the same token I can’t imagine that anything could be gained by me tweeting.
Perhaps you will think that I am just a Luddite. But that is a convenient term to imply a blanket rejection of new technology normally used by those uncritically accepting new technology. I prefer to think that the Emperor has no clothes and that twitter stands as testimony to a shallow populism dressed up as democratic participation and an egotism dressed up as open communication. It seems to me to have several very unpleasant effects and no redeeming qualities at all. It is not just another medium of communication, neutral in itself, it entails an emotional, political and intellectual infantilisation of communication.
That, I think, is the image we should have of tweeting: an endlessly, insatiably egocentric infant spewing out its thoughts and feelings at the instant they occur. The trolls are not so much a side-effect as an exemplification of this: far from being an anomaly they define the ideal-type of the tweeter. But unlike infants they claim a right, albeit one detached from any kind of defensible ethics or politics. As Brenda Leyland said when confronted about her tweets: “I’m entitled to do that”. That is not to revile her. A few days later she was dead, caught in desperation between the infantilised, simplified world of 140 character tweets and the adult world where words, politics and ethics are more complex.