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Jul 11, 2012

Twitter is humanity, warts and all. Where's the story in that?

Mocking the weak and stupid is universal human behaviour. So why is it global news when a young woman is ridiculed for asking an ill-informed question on Twitter?

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Mocking the weak and stupid is universal human behaviour. So why is it global news when a young woman is ridiculed for asking an ill-informed question on Twitter?

“Is Wimbledon always held in London?” asked a 21-year-old Tyneside resident and Sunderland FC fan during the finals. She thought Wimbledon might have been the name of an itinerant sporting event, perhaps like the Olympic Games. Her tweet was retweeted more than 7000 times, she copped abuse aplenty — and then deleted her Twitter account in shame.

That’s sad, given it’s a fair question. None of us know every detail of sports we don’t follow. Wimbledon was actually in Surrey, not London, until the boundaries were changed in 1965. And how many Londoners could name all the suburbs of, say, Newcastle?

It’s sadder, for humanity as a whole, that this event immediately became global news. And sadder still that pretty much every single news story blammed the medium of Twitter, or the internet in general, rather the people involved.

“The internet can be a cruel place,” began The Daily Mail. The Huffington Post referred to “the nasty side of social networking”, News Track India to “the notorious Twitter mob”, and Australia’s Fairfax mastheads to “the dark side of the internet”.

I won’t name the woman here. She’s suffered enough. But everyone else seems to have named her, even her local paper.

But with 2.5 billion of us using the internet today, including the vast majority of Westerners, the internet and social networks are no longer separate, special places populated by separate, special people. It’s just us. Humanity, in its glorious ugly warts-and-all beauty, doing what it does.

Do news outlets refer to events happening because of “the dark side of the bus”? No. Well some do. And then we laugh at them.

If news outlets are writing about perfectly ordinary human behaviour as if it’s news, just because it’s happening online, then all they’re demonstrating is that they’re well behind the pace of most of us, not ahead. That is, they’re failing.

Fairfax sprinted even further into the derp zone by categorising the story under “technology”. Why? Because Twitter happens via computers and smartphones? Like, um, the entire rest of human intercourse in the 21st century?

I look forward to Fairfax reporting the next domestic murder via the real estate pages because it happened in a house.

The one vaguely technological angle to this story is that people’s behaviour online, in computer-mediated communications, tends to be more extreme compared with how they might interact face to face.

Online, you can’t see the subtle cues — facial gesture, body language, “um” and “err” vocalisations — that indicate what you’re saying is upsetting the other person or even making them angry. When chatting in a group situation like Twitter, you don’t see the similar clues from your friends that tell you, “mate, you’re going to far”.

Then there’s the stupid people with poorly-developed theory of mind who can’t connect the words they’re seeing on screen with a real living, breathing human being who might be reacting emotionally. You can always spot their people in an online argument. They’re the ones who justify their behaviour with “it’s not real, it’s only the internet” — as if your mother is suddenly not your mother when you phone her rather than joining her for Sunday lunch.

But all that was documented by MIT sociologist and psychologist Sherry Turkle in her book Life on the Screen. In 1995. Eighteen years ago. So that’s not really news either.

Final bonus points to The Sun, though, for referring to the hapless young woman as “a tennis dimwit” and quoting just one unsourced comment on her tweet, “the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard”. As opposed, presumably, to the intellectual achievements of its own audience.

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