This article was started before I read Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, and was not intended as a review of the book. But hey ho.
There has been a misunderstanding, and it is time to correct it. I know for the journalists and commentariat who moved into a giant chatroom and declared it their future, twitter was something new, but I wish they had not in their arrogance christened it ‘media’.
Most of us are used to living in an ugly offensive world outside our comfort zone. The internet as a realm where you see the world’s consciousness in writing is not a surprise. You don’t need to have joined a dating website and ended up with an inbox full of penis pictures, or have been deceived by someone with a fake identity on a forum, to understand the internet reflects a world that is often more confusing, dangerous and offensive than you knew. Not a surprise that people are sometimes not who they say they are, more vulnerable than they let on or that people behave irrationally. Few of us expect to live in a world where everyone likes us, agrees with us or thinks like us. Most of us are careful on the internet for this reason.
For a while it was fascinating watching our political media culture adjust to their internet paddling pool. It was interesting to see how the dynamics within a homogenous tribal political culture shape the newsprint we read and policies we live with, how these people behaved when reality contradicted their needs. Watching ‘trolls’ hide disturbing behaviour underneath twitter storms championed as political action, their views normalised by political narratives. The unpleasantness that exists on the fringes of this digital culture is often nasty, but it is just a reflection of that culture’s influence and output. It’s educational, and anyone with any sense keeps a good distance from it if they want to have respectful and sensible conversations with people whose perspectives differ from their own. The christening of twitter as ‘media’ by a culture who have never had to reconcile themselves to the complexity of the real world, or their detachment from it, mean twitter now occupies a unique place in digital history. Twitter is the chatroom that can land you in prison. Ludicrous tribalism and mob mentality are a symptom of the atomisation of the power of mainstream media as we transition to a digital media landscape. Sometimes it’s funny. A tweet sent while waiting for the washing machine during a JP Morgan PR exercise can land you in the New York Times. Sometimes it is less funny, and drunkenly participating in a twitter storm against a media figure can land you in prison for 3 months. Even if you were drunk, or your capacity was reduced because of a learning disability.
The anonymity that allows keyboard warriors in their pants to vent their spleens, can also hide extreme vulnerability. Vulnerability and being offensive are not mutually exclusive. Twitter wars, as media feminists and lefties face demands for accountability from those they ‘speak for’ while they grapple with the radical idea people are complicated, can be hilarious, but media figures with publications and political parties behind them, are not arguing with equals. Defamationby a media figure cannot be challenged by most people, nor can the swarms of acolytes who bite in their defence. Media narratives do have power over people’s lives. Smearing and lying as reflex do not translate to a medium where you are mixing with people who do not have your protection.
A spot on Newsnight demanding the force of the law be used to protect your internet experience is not available to most. Organisations respond quickly to media pressure and if power is to be enjoyed, it needs to be used responsibly. If your twitter row is resulting in someone being fired, imprisoned or put at risk, it is time to get some perspective on your internet use and think about logging off.
I don’t think free speech is threatened long term by recent ‘twitter prosecutions’, digital culture evolves too quickly for legislation to keep up. I have always liked the visibility of the vitriol on twitter, once it has been drawn out it can be challenged. I am quite sure there will be a booming market in online ‘troll catchers’ before long, but before twitter becomes the new myspace and ephemeral social media makes it look quaint, it is time for those who have been part of this transition to reflect on what has been learned. The most important part of the term ‘social media’ is ‘social’ not media. If media figures are going to mingle with ‘society’, it is about time they got to grips that there are consequences.