There was once something quite enjoyable about being able to scream into the void.
In 2007 when I first joined Twitter, anonymity and the ability to create an avatar personality defined interaction. You were joining the discussion, but not necessarily as yourself. Few used their own name, many relied on avatar images suggesting their hobbies and inspirations. You could construct a different identity. Yes, you may ask, why would you want to? Facebook allowed us to share updates with our friends. Then we began to realise there is a reason we don’t stay in touch with all of our friends. To be honest, many of them are pretty dull. Twitter unbound the ties of Facebook. You didn’t have to know everybody. You could chat, anonymously, about issues you were passionate about, jokes you found funny, events you were involved in. For several months my better half developed a Twitter relationship with Duncan Jones, just after he made Moon. It was democratic, accessible. It was fun.
Look at Twitter now and it is an unrecognisable network. Like a rampant celebrity hell bent on notoriety it has pushed itself into the headlines. Like a starlet dressed to shock, stumbling out of nightclubs it is chasing the limelight. That, we know, ends in one of two ways; either we stop watching or it all implodes.
Twitter hasn’t chased these headlines itself, but its users have. Obsessed with the opportunity they believe it portrays to make a name for yourself in the simplest, easiest way possible, with the littlest amount of effort, they lash out. Yesterday I read the Twitter feeds of two self-confessed trolls who had been outed by Kirsty Allsop. They revelled in their notoriety. The 17 year old who sent threats to Tom Daley now has 50,000 + followers. The next time he speaks people will listen, no matter what it is he says.
It is notoriety and fame they seek, all measured by a follower number. If someone says something offensive, automatically you look at their follower number; under 100 and they’re dismissed as a troll or a crank, over 300 and they’re a wit. If you want people to follow you need to be outrageous, outspoken and often plain offensive. You thought Britain’s Got Talent was bad? Shoving people who really just needed a hug and a little bit of support in front of a stage with millions watching merely to laugh at them? Anything for fame, dahling. The next step is that you can be the Frankie Boyle of Battersea, get your name trending and you’ll be a man, my son. It is not all Twitterers that do this, but the numbers that do are growing.
There will also be a desire for people to be famous, but what we’re creating on Twitter is a moral vacuum. It’s a news source and is reported as such, even if reporters don’t know the actual facts (who knows whether a carer or concerned parent suggested the police should visit the 17 year old if they were worried about his state of mind?). Trolling becomes acceptable because an individual lashes out, sections of the media become hysterical, they publish what was said (to a far larger audience, I might add), more people attack. They issue their own death threats, use their own Anglo-Saxon language. But that’s all right because he started it. No, that’s not all right, that’s playground politics. If you’re not mature enough to understand that, then perhaps you’re not mature enough to be broadcasting to the public.
This isn’t about free speech, it isn’t about not being able to fully express ourselves. There are some people who are not able to. We’ve known that since we had the first fight with the class bully and realised he used his fists because he was largely inarticulate. It’s about what we want to create and how we want to be seen. If we create a social network where trending topics are so vicious, so hate-filled in their misogyny, racism, bigotry and ignorance, then to quote Mrs Landingham “Hell, I don’t even want to know you”. A social network populated by hoards who support Chris Brown and get his name trending (the rapper, not my better half), despite the fact he beat his girlfriend and continues to display behaviour that suggests he hasn’t truly understood the impact of what he did, is surely one that’s broken.
So here’s my solution. Abandon follower numbers. If you’re not chasing notoriety then you can be yourself once again. If I was really compiling my wish list I’d ask for Twitter to remove offensive hashtags; for some journalists to, oh I don’t know, not use the lazy option of rifling through Twitter feeds to find suitable quotes and actually, say, interview people? But that’s unlikely to happen. It has become a news source and that it will remain until its bubble bursts.
Yet if we want people to stop using it as a platform to leap into fame and fortune – whatever that is – we need to take away the carrot. Because all we’ve got right now is a whole lot of stick. We have to create the society we want to live in. Twitter is betraying the very worst side of ourselves. We must change for one simple reason; please God don’t let David Cameron be proved right.