As the family therapy essay I’m currently procrastinating on would attest, I’m interested in group dynamics and the way people communicate with each other. I tend to think about these issues both in the real world and in social media, particularly Twitter. There’s lots of good and interesting ways that Twitter can be used for communications, but also some pitfalls. Chief of the latter is the Twitterstorm.
I used to presume, probably rather naively, that if someone is getting bombarded with angry messages from multiple tweeters, then they’ve probably done something pretty unpleasant to deserve it. All too often, that isn’t the case, particularly if somebody is spoiling for a fight.
Here’s the funny thing about Twitter. Where else would a single full stop be the source of enormous trouble? Quick technical primer for non-tweeters: if you start a tweet with somebody’s @ username, like this….
@thus_spake_z your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!
….then it goes to them, and also appears in the feed of anyone who is following you both. However, if a tweet begins with text, then it appears in the feed of everyone who follows you. Hence people sometimes stick a full stop before the @ identity, like this:
.@thus_spake_z your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!
….and so your caustic retort is re-broadcast to a much wider audience. If you have a large number of followers, then at least some of them will take that as an invitation to a pile-on.
There’s a certain segment of tweeters who seem to get embroiled in Twitterstorms on a fairly regular basis. Melissa Thompson has an excellent and detailed post about the discussions involved. To summarise briefly, those involved tend to identify with intersectional feminism, and also take an interest in questions of privilege.
Intersectionality discusses the way in which different systems of oppression – race, class, gender, sexuality etc – can interact, and calls for greater cooperation between various liberation movements. I think that’s a very worthy aim, and fully agree with it. It’s therefore a shame that the tweeters involved are so often involved in Twitterstorming other members of the left. Most recently it was the New Statesman editor Helen Lewis. Before that it was the Independent columnist Owen Jones, and on Lord knows how many occasions it’s been the author and Times columnist Caitlin Moran. All too frequently, these are over fairly minor issues of semantics. In Owen Jones’ case, it was because he condemned George Galloway’s rape apologism, but didn’t sufficiently emphasise the condemnation.
I guess this is why the right always wins.
Regarding the politics of privilege, I’d broadly agree that it’s good to think about how your relative advantages and disadvantages affect your thinking – but only up to a point. Privilege and oppression can affect people in various ways, and not always in a predictable way. For example, one might argue that George Orwell’s keen awareness of social inequality was at least partly because of rather than despite his Eton-educated privilege.
It also shouldn’t be used as an ad hominem retort.
“Thank you for aggressively tweeting at me to ‘check your privilege’. I appreciated that suggestion, which prompted me to engage in a bout of self-analysis and has enriched my awareness and insight.”
-No one. Ever.
It’s also important to remember that everyone has their own individual privileges and oppressions, not all of which may be immediately apparent. An online friend of mine was recently Twitterstormed over her perceived (though probably not actual) transphobia. Unfortunately one of her hidden oppressions was an anxiety disorder, and the Twitterstorm triggered a relapse.
I’m not going to get into the original reasons behind these various Twitterstorms – actually I think most of those reasons are monumentally banal. But what I am going to do is suggest a few etiquette points that might encourage people to debate in a more constructive way. If I were to get back to the family therapy essay that I really, really need to stop procrastinating on then this would be what’s referred to as “moving from content to process”. Which is a fancy way of saying that often it’s not what’s said that’s important, but the way it’s said.
1. Exercise caution before retweeting or deploying the Thermonuclear Full Stop. Just because you disagree with someone doesn’t mean you need to throw it open into a free-for-all. A discussion is not a gang fight.
2. Don’t presume to tell other people what their privileges are or aren’t. Particularly if you don’t know them offline.
3. Don’t use privilege as an ad hominem. “You are male/white/straight/cisgender/able-bodied, therefore argument invalid” is never an appropriate retort.
4. Remember that the ability to haul in large numbers of other people into the fray is itself a platform and a privilege.
5. If somebody blocks you, or makes their account private, or temporarily suspends their account, then respect the fact that they have the right to do so. Nobody is obliged to have a conversation with you.
6. Finally – and this is probably the most important point – be willing to accommodate difference and disagreement. This is particularly the case when discussing with people who are part of the same broad left. Outside of certain extremes, they’re mostly decent people who mostly share the same views and aims as you. That small part which they might think differently on is not as important as the larger common goals. You don’t have to agree with them on everything and they don’t have to agree with you. If you can do this, then that would be…..oh, what’s the word? Ah yes. Intersectional.