Monday, 4 June 2012

Twittacking the Void

by Daniel Rollins

Curiously for such a common occurrence, abuse on the popular social media site Twitter has not been given a name. Changing someone’s status on Facebook without their knowledge or permission is known as “fraping” and people who are inexperienced at a certain game or platform are known as “noobs” (derived from “newbie”). Twitter also has a rich lexicon of abbreviations and acronyms; however there is no term for thousands of messages containing verbal abuse that are sent and received over Twitter every day. This may be partially due to the harsh “tw” sound making it difficult to coin a portmanteau that can be said casually and popularised. However, for the purpose of this blog, I propose to fill this lexical gap with the suitably dissonant word: “twittack”.

Twittack /twi-tack/ n. An abusive message published on the microblogging site Twitter.

There have been several twittacks that have reached the headlines recently: Liam Stacey was jailed for 56 days for racially twittacking Fabrice Muamba after he collapsed during an FA cup match in March; the Conservative MP Louise Mensch, aka “Cameron’s Cutie”, has spoken out against “misogynistic” messages  many female MPs, including herself, were receiving over Twitter; on Thursday (31st May 2012) the Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington said she was going to use Twitter less in the run up to the London Olympics, citing negative comments she had received through the website.

Copyright : Jonathan Cape
Another person who has been on the receiving end of a large number of twittacks lately has been Joe Simpson, author of Touching the Void, a GCSE English Literature text taught to thousands of students across the country (including those at PGS). After their exams last week, many disgruntled students went straight to their computers and smartphones to express their opinion of the book, which describes Mr Simpson’s incredible tale of survival after falling and breaking his leg mountaineering in Peru. Many of the students, however, did not seem impressed by Simpson's writing, one such young person tweeting “Your book is the reason my entire year will fail our English exam!! Learn to write you illiterate fool”. Most of the other tweets could not be published on this clean, family-friendly school blog and neither could many of Mr Simpson’s angry responses. Having received and responded to enough comments, he finishing the evening with this example of the literary prowess that his young critics seemed so unimpressed with: “A lovely day of children writhing in their hellish hormonal middens … good night vile innocents may you all seethe in bilious acid pus ...”

This online argument is an example of a growing trend on the internet. Before, people could only complain about things to people they knew and, at a stretch, corporate representatives of people whose work they found unsatisfactory. Now they can complain directly to the perpetrators. Though in some cases, as in the examples above, this can lead to angry and unreasonable public exchanges, it has also been very empowering.  Through Twitter and other forums, people can now tell businesses, creators, PR departments and, most importantly, other consumers about a bad experience, pushing up standards, customer service and care both on and offline. Politicians, also, are less able to get away with small “inaccuracies” or have time to cover up scandals, as within minutes they are trending on Twitter.

The internet, therefore, has increased the accountability of businesses and politicians; they now fear (or at least should) the power of short messages sent from phones that can now be read by thousands of people almost instantly. The briefness of these messages can hide background and context leading to embarrassment and damage.

So, as with all power, Twitter and the internet come with responsibility. As demonstrated in the case of Liam Stacey, individual internet users have to take responsibility for what they publish on the internet. Though posting a drunk tweet seems less harmful than hurling racist abuse at a football match, the effects may be felt harder and further due to the international and enduring nature of the internet. Many people also believe that what they tweet has few or no legal consequences. This, of course, is untrue as they can be prosecuted under existing laws against verbal abuse.

Internet users should be aware of the possible consequences of their online activity, thinking before they tweet and not tweeting what they wouldn't say to someone’s face, if they wish to keep their tweets away from the newspapers. People should also be educated and informed about their responsibilities on the web activity alongside the benefits. It should not put people off from using the internet to tell other people about their opinions, beliefs and experiences or highlighting political blunders, but it will, hopefully, limit the number of twittacks and other unpleasant content that ends up online.

Twitter and other similar platforms are all very new technologies, only a few years old, so only time will tell exactly how they will change the economic, political and cultural landscape of the future. However we can be sure that they will change the way we communicate with each other as well as with business and our political leaders. So next time you are about to tweet, comment or blog, think about the effect, no one likes a troll.

(A troll is someone who makes unnecessary, rude or off topic comment on the internet, so be nice in the comments) 

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