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?

Stilgherrian — Technology writer and broadcaster


Technology writer and broadcaster

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.

Free Trial

You've hit members-only content.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

8 thoughts on “Twitter is humanity, warts and all. Where’s the story in that?

  1. oldskool

    Is the Paris- Dakar always held from Europe to Africa?

    No- it hadn’t been to Europe for years, and now is held in South America.

    The overall idiocy of the people who feel they have to portray their smarter/ holier than thou attitiude on social networks is what keeps me off them.

  2. tinman_au

    “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.”

    And is one of the reasons they (the papers) are failing financially as well.

    It’s not so much the actual story, it’s the mentality that goes behind the idea to publish it….”Hey, that’ll make a great story!!”…er…no, it won’t, it’s boring fluff and there are already multiple sites that cover/condense such fluff for free, why would someone actually pay a newspaper for it?

  3. mikeb

    There are a lot of keyboard warriors out there who are quick to flame anonymously but who’d be as weak as **** face to face. This physically disconnected social media seems to lower the average IQ and increase the cruelty/rudeness levels of most who use it. The answer would be to just ignore the “twits” and forget about it as they do not deserve a response, but I guess many haven’t got enough self-confidence to do that.

  4. Ari Sharp

    I’m happy to be corrected if wrong, but I suspect Fairfax filed it under technology because the rates they charge for ads are higher for content in that category than for other categories. Commercialism tends to trump news judgement with those kinda things.

  5. AR

    Given the dumb things he said & did, in the real world, imagine if Dubya had ever tweeted.
    In other news of the dead tree brigade, the UK Daily Mail has just printed the story, which Crikey had many months ago, of the interesting combination of letters that popped up on the SBS show Letters & Numbers. Last with the least, must be all that ink that lowers their IQ.

  6. zut alors

    What’s the bet a significant percentage of those Twitter [email protected] call it Wimbleton – like many Oz newsreaders do.

  7. vealmince

    Headlines containing the word ‘Twitter’ get more clicks than headlines not containing the word ‘Twitter’. It’s that simple and that cynical.


    I got a very wierd view of twitter the other week, after someone pointed out a rather lonely group of young girls who where basically talking each other into anorexia and self harm. Anyway when I went over to see what the heck was going on, one young girl , 14yo, was tweeting about killing herself. I struck up a conversation to try and console her and realised she had eaten about 18 co-codemols, and at around 9mg of paracetomol, was in grave danger of serious liver damage. Anyway, after she refused to seek medical attention, I decided to intervene , tracked down the poor childs identity (hint kids: You probably shouldnt be putting so much personal information online.) and got in contact with the North Wales police department in the UK, and got a phone call back an hour later that they had found the kid unconscious. Last I heard her mother had booked her in for a psychiatric assessment.

    So having possibly saved the life of an anorexic teenager, I’m left to conclude that twitter is a god damn hell hole, but occasionally an amazing hell hole.

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details