Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Twitter and Protestant Militanism

In which we draw parallels between medieval society and twitter's new 'mob mentality'.

Last Saturday saw me in Hailsham for their annual Bonfire Night. "But James," you protest, "Bonfire Night is on the fifth of November. Don't you remember, remember?" 
While that was a very witty thing of you to say, you are in fact wrong here. For reasons best known to the people who live there, Sussex is absolutely mad on Bonfire. So much so that the county's 30 different Bonfire Societies try and have their 'celebrations' on different nights so as to be able to all go to each others'.

They're also very fond of things like this:

It's a giant burning banner, roughly the size of a bus. In case you can't read the letter, they say "lest we forget". Also, there are large wooden doves on either side, and yes that one looks like it's on fire. And of course, this was in the context of screaming, cheering crowds, a parade of thousands of torchbearers dressed as victorians, cowboys, punk rockers etc - and all finished off by a beautiful firework display. Bakhtin called this sort of thing the carnivalesque; social situations where we can collectively run wild and relieve social pressure.
What's interesting about all this stuff is that with the collective sorrow comes a strong sense of triumphalism - hence the fireworks.

In the last six months, twitter has been hailed as the champion, the emblem of, the facilitator of collective action to create social justice. In certain high profile cases, rightly so - god knows the people of, say, Iran don't get enough chance to speak on an unfiltered channel, and giving people an easy way to echo has to be a good thing. However, we're not considering is what the individual might be getting out of the echo. With the agony of a Trafigura comes the ecstasy of collective rage - and with that, the glory of collective victory. But when the pursuit of this same carnivalesque triumphalism overtakes a realistic sense of appropriate justice being done, you get problems. In fact, you get what's often referred to as a mob mentality. A mob, fuelled by relative anonymity.

Now don't get me wrong: Jan Moir has written an extremely distasteful article, Trafigura are very naughty indeed, that TfL staff member was thoroughly nasty to an old man. But it's worrying that both of the linked instances have led to sackings within a day. It's as though the twittering classes are looking to right all that's wrong with the world, one head on a pike at a time. There are many that deserve this treatment. But as communication gets faster and faster, it might take a simple misunderstanding to teach us when it can be too fast:

It can happen. And just like an American with "NO PUBLIC OPTION" scrawled on a placard is trying to communicate a slew of legitimate and intense personal fears that need addressing, every scandal - especially the ones that involve sackings and changing the law - can't have its subtleties expressed in 140 characters.

RT means Me Too.

Remember, Remember.


  1. true true brother James, twitter in some sectors is turning into another outlet for self-righteous anger, and we have enough of those already. Particularly in London, which feels like it's always one you-nudged-my-elbow-so-i-spilt-my-latte-now-i-will-destroy-you away from all-out civil war

  2. We were in a meeting just yesterday discussing the Jan Moir and tfl case. Twitter seems to have influenced the format for breaking news. Conversations and content spread everywhere like rapid fire. And now it's almost as if we feel its our right to show bad people up for the greater good. But people can get this wrong (i.e. your Guardian points of view example), and people can take it too far (i.e. death threats and what not).

    If this carrries on (which I'm sure it will), I wonder how this will affect us. Clients will probably be even more wary of social media, and maybe even opt for 'safe' communications to avoid the Twitter mob.


    p.s. no mention of Miley??

  3. Dave - maybe it's just human nature? A medium gets invented and that medium is used for a)porn, b)righteous fury, c)advertising, and then eventually it calms down. Or not. What I would say is that these things speak more to the nature of humans than the nature of twitter. It's just a facilitator. A horrible, horrible facilitator.

    Nic - good point re: brands... and here is the thing. Jan was writing in the public domain. Trifigura is a company and should know better. Tfl guy was in public - but he certainly wouldn't have expected to be recorded. Journalists are (ideally) educated to know the ramifications of stirring up public hate against a figure, and when it's appropriate to do so. They have checks and balances.
    The public doesn't. And while that's fine if the person is *definitely* scum in the eyes of a *definitely* fair, democratic, liberal society, what if they're not? What if WE'RE not? If twitter existed in 1945, would undercover resistence in Nazi France have had a chance?
    It's not just brands - in the future, we might find our freedom of speech eroding each other's privacy. If everyone's a journalist, who can you talk to, be with, whatever, in confidence?

    Miley will get her day next week. That is if I don't answer Will's excellent question ;)

  4. Nice post James.

    Free speech is an issue we can all believe in I’m sure.

    That Twitter’s recent mob actions have all been for liberal causes simoly reflects the political leanings of its early adopters, which will change. (Love that liberals even hand wring about it all being so liberal.)

    What’s really interesting is that we’re seeing the start of the transition from the parliamentary system to a new form of democracy. It’s going to be hard, we’re making up the rules as we go along.

    In the meantime, the weekend’s very public misunderstanding between @stephenfry and @brumplum shows that the mob can claim innocent victims. People could do well to remember that there are people on the end of their hastily made (or even more hasty re-tweets). I know I’m going to try to from now on.

  5. Cheers Glyn. Remember back in 2000, when all sorts of "Woman embarrasses herself and loses job over Reply-All email gaffe" stories came out? It's like we've forgotten those lessons already, or even the earlier ones we're taught as children of thinking before you speak - just because it's a new medium.

    Twitter is in many ways a bit of a Reply-All system. And yes, that does allow wonderful ideas to flourish and spread, but could also allow nasty thoughts and personal enmity to go viral. In the very worst sense.


Sound off on your big crazy opinions here please... and if you have a longer piece, send it in and we'll put it up all nice and in full :)