Why Twitter is not a street and we’re not shouting

“YOU WOULDN’T SHOUT THAT AT SOMEONE ON THE STREET” is a favoured observation of many on Twitter who obsess about ‘trolling’ and online anonymity. Read any discussion about the issue and it’s bound to appear at some point. Yet it’s a completely bollocks analogy. Here’s why:

          Twitter is a medium set-up to entirely encourage people to express their thoughts, opinions, activities. You wouldn’t walk down the street and shout to everyone ‘I AM GOING TO THE PUB’. You wouldn’t rush up to people and thrust an essay you had written on disability allowances in their face.

          The reality is that people do say things in ‘real life’ which offend others and do say things which could be conceived as threats. Who hasn’t said ‘I am going to kill….’ or ‘…. is a dick’? The context is key. In person people take more notice of the context – the person saying it, the way they say it, whether it’s meant seriously, whether it’s said in anger. On Twitter many make absolutely no effort to do this and make zero allowances for the fact that people sometimes say stupid things, silly things, sarcastic things, things they regret etc etc. Really, think about this for a moment – I’m not ‘defending death threats’, but if someone is actually going to kill you, they’re probably not going to announce it to you on Twitter.

          The analogy always suggests someone (usually a man) shouting at someone (usually a woman) who is passing by on the street. But it is frequently used against people who give criticism or insults to journalists, columnists, writers, directors etc in reaction to a piece of their work or something they’ve written online. These folk tend to have many more Twitter followers than most and receive copious praise for everything they put out. So, a more accurate (but still crap) street analogy would be someone walking along the street shouting ‘JENNIFER LOPEZ IS A BAD MOTHER’, with 100 people standing around them shouting ‘I AGREE’ and someone across the road shouting ‘YOU’RE A BLOODY IDIOT AND I HATE YOU’. Then the first speaker shouts ‘OMG YOU ARE SO RUDE’ and 20 of the hundred people start shouting ‘YOU ARE SO RUDE’ and the person across the road either shouts ‘I AM SO SORRY’ or ‘SHUT UP, I STILL HATE YOU’ until everyone gets bored and goes to the pub.

          Already touched on but the analogy is always presented with the sinister threat of intimidation and physical action, a threat which simply isn’t automatically there on twitter. Especially when it’s some random sending a stupid insult to someone with a massive platform. In society there are hierarchies of power. Someone with a column in a national newspaper has far more power than someone with 24 followers on twitter. This does not change merely because the latter is now able to directly write something to the former. It of course doesn’t mean that the latter can’t still be a complete idiot or should be able to do whatever the hell they want, but it certainly makes the relationship a lot more complex than the street analogy would suggest.

Sure, we could and should all try to be nicer to each other but that is a far wider issue than twitter. It also applies to the countless columnists/magazines/tv shows which rely on making fun of public figures,  making people embarrass themselves and/or ridiculing grotesque caricatures of people. There’s nothing wrong with the advice that you should take a breather and think about what you’re writing, especially if you’re irritated or angry. However this should also apply to the reaction – increasingly we all need to ask ourselves if we really are offended, if we really feel threatened, or if we just think that we should be or, worse, are trying to inflate something in order to drown out something we don’t like. It’s getting a bit silly when someone who writes a single crap joke at someone is labelled with the same term as someone who, say, obsessively harasses the family of a dead child for months on end. There is no ‘shouting on the street’ analogy for the latter and we can all unite against such behaviour – but only if we stop going crazy over some imaginary man calling us a cunt from the other side of the road.

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