Sunday, 29 July 2012

On Twitter as everywhere else: try to see the lighter side...

What a relief that Paul Chambers’ conviction for sending a ‘menacing electronic communication’ on twitter has been overturned.

If the first casualty of war (or terrorist threat) is the truth, then the second is the sense of humour. Chambers wanted to visit his girlfriend, but when he turned up at Robin Hood airport (hard to believe that
’s a real place and not a joke itself) he found it shut. He sent out a tweet saying that he’d blow the place up if it didn’t reopen, and the next thing he knew he was a convicted criminal. 

Though not any more, I’m glad to say. 

Nearly thirty years ago, one of my sons, then 12, became so frustrated at how he’d played, or more precisely failed to play, a point in a squash game that he hammered his racket against the floor.

‘If you’ve broken that, I’ll break you,’ I growled. Menacingly. 

One glance at his expression told me had. But I didn’t. Instead I collapsed in laughter, astonished that he’d had the strength to break a racket that easily. We found another and finished our game. 

But what if someone like the people who convicted Chambers had been listening? Can you imagine the interviews with social workers, with psychiatrists, with the police? It would have been a clear case of child abuse. Or at the very least menace of child abuse. 

Chambers’ tweet may not have been particularly funny, but surely it was of the same order as my outburst. A cry of exasperation, above all not to be taken seriously. 

It’s part of the difficulty of learning to cope with the internet. We are still in the pioneering stage of the technology. Christianity, for instance, has been around the best part of 2000 years (though it sometimes feels a lot longer) and even it took three centuries to become truly established, as a state religion.

I often think about that. The day Constantine turned all those bishops and priests into representatives of the Roman Empire and gave them a nice state apparatus to play with. At last they had the tools to serve an all-loving God properly. They could send real soldiers round to the houses of people who called themselves Christian but thought, say, that God the father might be greater than Christ the son, and they could burn them on real bonfires. It must have felt like a coming of age.

Incidentally, my behaviour on the squash court shows I’d have been on a bonfire: I evidently think the father is superior to the son. 

The internet by contrast has only had fifty years. No wonder it's still feeling its way. And Twitter’s even more recent.

Still feeling it's way, still feeling my way

Twitter is where people who’ve never met can converse in messages 140 characters long. It’s fun, because writing anything moderately meaningful and grammatical in 140 characters is one heck of a challenge.

As you exchange messages you get to know some people better. But it’s still limited. After all, a real physical meeting might start something like this:

‘It’s a real pleasure to to get to know you, I’ve heard such a lot about you already.’

‘Oh, most of it’s true. I really am just the kind of person my detractors say I am.’

‘Yes, I can see that. Someone who thinks self-deprecation will diminish the impact of character flaws.’

Now even that has consumed enough for two tweets, and there’s another 58 minutes left of the interview (I didn’t get the job, by the way).

What this means is that while you can begin to know and like some people on Twitter, the reality is that with most, your acquaintance will be slight to non-existent.

A few days ago I made a casual reference to the parties who compose the present British government as the ‘ConDems’. It’s a term used with glee but no affection by detractors, built by conflating the names of the coalition partners, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats or 
Lib Dems

The way it sounds gives it good strong negative connotations, so it works well as a term of abuse. To me that makes it a good play on words, and since I like words far more than I like these politicians, I enjoy using it.

Imagine my shock, then, when a Twitter follower told me that using the word ConDem is an ‘immediate unfollow offence’. The implication seemed to be that the brutality with which he was divorcing me would deliver a salutary shock, teaching me to mend my ways. And yet I barely know the guy from Adam, except that I vaguely remember that his name might actually be Adam.

Out of courtesy I explained my position but that only seemed to goad him to further paroxysms of righteous irritation, so I wished him well and returned his favour of unfollowing me by unfollowing him.

It feels to me that something is still missing from Twitter and its devotees (among whom I count myself). A form of etiquette? A set of conventions or protocols? Or is it perhaps simply an ability to lighten up a little?

A lesson to be learned by 
Paul Chambers’ prosecutors in their reaction to Twitter. But also, I would suggest, by some of the users of Twitter themselves.

No comments: