Do you remember when Twitter used to be fun? Back when the little “1” notification didn’t make you feel slightly queasy and think “Oh now what?”
I’m not talking about trolls. I’m not talking about fighting over politics. I’m not even talking about abortion, or any of the other “liberal agenda” flame-wars which are almost always stirred-up by the usual right-wing suspects who shout loudly and often that the Tweet Machine is a vast liberal echo-chamber.
I’m talking about slightly creepy, almost obsessive attention from people who seem to feel they need to reply to your every single utterance. Then there’s the presumption of close friendship from people who are, after all, strangers. I know I’m open to accusations of paranoia but I’m not the only person rattled by the same few people who constantly over-interact.
I’ve been on Twitter for over two years and, for the most part, I have loved my time there. I have met there people who would go on to become real-life friends, some of them close friends. I am a better and happier man for those friends. Mind you, I have also had blazing rows on Twitter. But then, who hasn’t? And I have, on more than one occasion, found myself completely freaked out by the behaviour of a few people.
I’m very conscious that I’m talking about low-level, if persistent, perhaps-accidental harassment at a time when genuine abuse on Twitter has been a very real and frightening issue. The vile and cowardly threats thrown at women daily on Twitter, as highlighted by Caroline Criado-Perez (@CCriadoPerez) of late, is a world away from what is usually at worst an irritation. Female friends on Twitter tell me they have received very disturbing DMs, so I accept that I could well be told ’tis much is troubling me.
Not speaking to specifics, but I do think tone is a recurring problem on Twitter, as is a false feeling of intimacy and an often inevitable sense of over-familiarity. There can also be something quite intense about online friendships and this can, sometimes, result in a complete loss of perspective.
I think that sometimes, online, we lose sight of the fact that we don’t always actually know the person we’re chatting with, or with whom we may even be sharing DM intimacies. Sometimes we just catch people at a bad moment and step over an unseen line. What I may think is hilarious and light-hearted banter might be perceived by the recipient as persistent, personalised abuse. Sometimes what you think is innocent interaction with someone you like can seem to the other person to be ceaseless harassment.
I’m sure you’ve been in the position where someone being over-friendly on Twitter can feel like an ongoing breach of your own space. Someone takes a shine to you and they then seem compelled to comment on your every single remark. You find yourself afraid to say anything at all online because you know they’ll jump on you with their own comment. Or if you go quiet, they start asking what’s wrong. It’s a horrible feeling.
It’s not nice either when you start to worry that you’ve been guilty of inappropriate behaviour on Twitter yourself. An unanswered DM can lead to a sickly, panicked conviction that you’ve caused huge offence and anything you add will only compound the sin. Often the other person is blissfully unaware that you are worrying yourself to death over what may well be nothing.
Twitter is a wonderful place but its familiarity is not breeding contempt. It’s breeding crazy and it’s breeding paranoia.
Twitter can be a great way to make friends and have fun, but it can be a scary place too, with our own worst habits and attributes amplified by the fact that we’re plugged almost directly into each others’ heads. I’ve had, in the past, a situation where I killed a friendship stone dead by telling someone I’d never met, as gently as I could, that maybe they might think about laying off the hourly DMs.
I’ve also been irritated, and a little worried, by people I don’t know treating me almost like a fictional character, a caricature pieced together from my tweets. I’ve felt very uncomfortable when people on Twitter have told me the name of the pub I drink in, or other little personal details like that. I accept fully that’s my own fault for over-sharing and, if I’m honest, for spending too much damn time online.
Yes, I am aware that I can unfollow people and, if I’m feeling particularly upset by their attentions, I can block them too. And I have done, on occasion. But it feels mean-spirited when you block someone you know is basically decent and who, as far as they are aware, has done no wrong. I have tried, once or twice, telling people that they are a little, or more than a little, out of line. I usually end up either (a) pussy-footing around the point so much that they miss it, or (b) overplaying it and causing a permanent falling-out.
I confess, I am not innocent of most of these sins myself. The clever tweet to the radio presenter, quoting something he might have said a decade earlier? I’m sure it results in the poor man checking to make sure he’s not being properly followed. I’m a great man to accuse others of trolling and then to have an unprovoked go at an opponent. And on the subject of tone, I never stop to think about the effect that my own constant online smartarsing and snideness is having. Not just on others. On myself.
Maybe if I insist on behaving like a cartoon character I shouldn’t be too surprised if people treat me like one.
Maybe it’s time we all take a deep breath and back off a bit.
Maybe it’s time to switch off the Tweet Machine too.
– Donal O’Keeffe.