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The unbearable impoliteness of being, online

Why do people feel the need to be abusive online? Why do they believe that behaviour which they would never consider to be acceptable face-to-face is perfectly fine when using the Internet?

A case in point: these two tweets directed at Doctor Who writer Steven Moffat:

Calling someone a “cunt”? Declaring that you’d like to perpetrate physical violence against someone who you’ve never met? Is this acceptable behaviour anywhere?

There is, unfortunately, a nasty strain of macho bullshit that exists online that says, yes, this is perfectly acceptable. Well I don’t think it is – and I’m pretty tempted to do something about it.

What can I do? Well, one thing would be to use the Google juice of this blog to name and shame offenders. Because it’s been around for so long and linked to from so many sources, this blog tends to get rated pretty highly. If I mention someone’s name prominently, and they don’t already have a big online presence on a major site, it’s quite likely that a search for their name would turn up a page on here.

So I could name and shame people, thus displaying to friends, family and potential employers exactly what they think is an acceptable way to treat other people. Shaming them by tying them to their own words and forcing them to acknowledge their behaviour would, I think, be an excellent way to show them their behaviour isn’t on. Free speech is great – but you had better be prepared to stand behind those words when you put them out there.

I’m tempted, but I’m not going to do it… for now.

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  • http://twitter.com/sjcoltrane Stephen Coltrane

    Ian, I think your point is well made and I’m strongly tempted to agree with you. But ever since I started on Twitter I’ve been aware that the tonal range of contributions is much closer to what you might get down the pub, rather than something more genteel. People seem much more prepared to let their guard drop, much more prepared to call a spade a spade (or, in this case, a cunt).

    I’m torn between, on the one hand, thinking this is great for more honest discussion (I won’t say “debate”, as Twitter is a useless place to try to debate anything) and, on the other, thinking you should be just as polite on Twitter as you would be if the person you’ve just called a cunt is within earshot. I’ve certainly felt that I’ve had to toughen myself up because the opinions I express are more likely to be flamed on Twitter than they would be if, say, I’d posted them on my blog.

    It’s worth also remembering that half of the comments posted on Twitter are clearly ironic (such as your second example), and taking them too literally brings us into Robin Hood Airport territory. I don’t think we want to go back down that road.

    In any case, if you tried to name and shame anyone who’s been indiscreet or OTT or hurtful on Twitter, it would take a very, very long time indeed…

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk Ian Betteridge

    I don’t think you can really equate it to pub-talk. You wouldn’t walk up to someone you didn’t know in a pub and call them a cunt – primarily because you know there would be consequences. It’s not honest, either: honesty in discourse is about standing behind your words, and I very much doubt that any of the people above would want their friends, partners or colleagues to see them talking like this. 

    The more I think about it, the more I see as a form of bullying – they think they can be abusive with no consequences, which is the very definition of what a bully does. And I was always taught that bullies need to shown the consequences of what they do.

  • http://twitter.com/sjcoltrane Stephen Coltrane

    Again, I see your point and it’s well made. But, if you analyse the first remark more closely, the tweeter is not “walking up to” Moffat and calling him a cunt. To do that, he would write a tweet which reads, “@ steven_moffat  you’re a cunt”. What he’s doing is the equivalent of sitting with your mates in a drinking session talking about people you don’t like, and saying “yeah, that Moffat’s a cunt, too”. We all do this sort of thing, whether we use the c-word or not. Plenty of us make casual remarks in conversation which we would have difficulty backing up if we were called on them.

    Where both posters have gone wrong is they have included the ‘at’ sign in front of Moffat’s name. They probably think this is correct practice in Twitter and it hasn’t occurred to them that this will show up in Moffat’s mentions. Of course, I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt here, but it was certainly a mistake I made in my early days on Twitter (luckily I was sensible enough not to call anyone a cunt).

    So I think calling it bullying is perhaps going a little too far. It’s more thoughtlessness. Yes, we should point it out, condemn it, and put people straight – but we should be cautious about ascribing motives to people who may simply be sounding off.

    I could be wrong – the examples above could be intended to be malicious – but one of the joys and perils of online chat is you don’t always know what the other person means.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk Ian Betteridge

    No, he’s not. By deliberately using the  at-symbol bit, he’s ensuring that Moffat hears what he’s saying. It’s more like talking to your mates, pointing to someone, saying “that blokes a CUNT” and making sure he hears. Which is, arguably, worse – because you’re partly doing it to show off, too, to prove what a tough bloke you are to your friends. 
    I don’t buy the “they might not know it will show up in his stream” argument. Neither of them are new to Twitter.

    Most bullies, too, don’t intend maliciousness – the usual cry of the bully caught is “I didn’t mean to do it” – they simply don’t understand the consequences of their action, or have the emotional ability to put themselves in the other’s shoes. That’s exactly what’s happening here. 

  • http://twitter.com/nigelwUK Nigel Whitfield

    Perhaps it’s not so much walking up to someone – it wasn’t addressed directly to them – but in using the @  it’s certainly going a bit beyond just talking to mates in the pub. It’s like noticing the person you’re talking about is also in the same pub, and deliberately saying something rude about them when they’re close enough to hear you, or standing right behind someone, saying loudly “X is a xxxx” and then acting all surprised like “oh, I didn’t see you there,” which fools absolutely no one.

  • http://twitter.com/sjcoltrane Stephen Coltrane

    OK, if these guys are not newbies then the remarks – certainly the first one – are probably meant to cause offence. I still read the second one as a clumsy joke; I don’t think the writer intends us to think he seriously means Moffat physical harm (I don’t see his problem, I can’t get enough of Alex Kingston).

    I wonder if there’s something about Twitter which encourages us to forget our remarks are fully public. We think only our followers are reading, and we assume they’re like-minded people, so we can relax and speak freely. Most of the time, of course, this is harmless – which means we maybe don’t always remember that there’s a line which can’t be crossed. This is not to excuse bad or aggressive behaviour, just to explain why it might happen more easily on Twitter than in ‘normal’ life.

    I’d still be concerned that ‘naming and shaming’ would cause more problems than it solves; and that most of those problems would fall on Ian’s head. By all means give it a go if you feel strongly enough.

    Btw, this article throws an interesting light on online abuse: http://glutenfreegirl.com/warm-brown-rice-and-grilled-vegetable-salad/

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk Ian Betteridge

    I don’t really feel that strongly about it (today) :) 

  • http://twitter.com/spoofidentity Chris James

    whoops wrong thread

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk Ian Betteridge

    You can call me anything you like on your Twitter account or blog “Chris”, but people who claim they feel the need to use a “nom de guerre” really shouldn’t accuse anyone of being pompous.