One New Year resolution I wish politicians would make is to cut down on their Twitter use in 2016. Use responsibly or not at all. Just say no. Maybe even take a month off.
Above all, avoid the temptation to become Twitter martyrs, like the Labour MP Mike Gapes, wearing your abuse as a badge of pride or to elicit sympathy. Or worse still, as a means of attacking your opponents. There should be a rule that says politicians are not allowed to exploit anonymous comments on social media for political purposes.
Journalists should take the Twitter pledge too. How often do you see headlines about some celebrity or politician receiving abuse on Twitter? It’s an easy way to fill column inches. But you wouldn’t print as news the random conversations of people in a pub, so why anonymous ramblings on Twitter?
Social media has created a confusing interface between the private world and the public. It has allowed anyone with a laptop to become a commentator on national affairs. Which is a good thing, at least for attention seekers. Unfortunately, the easiest way to draw attention to yourself is to be abusive from behind a veil of anonymity.
Twitter knows this of course – its business model is based on it. It exploits our deepest anxieties, our fears about what kind of image we present to the world. Facebook does the same, of course, but in a more user-friendly way. It’s easier to confine comments to people you actually know. But there are also very simple tools on Twitter which allow you to disinfect your timeline.
I used to think blocking people on Twitter was somehow contrary to the etiquette of social media, but it isn’t. Now I block with abandon anyone who says anything abusive – always making sure to retweet the abuse so that everyone knows why. The retweet is a record of the offensive remark.
I’m often amazed at how many people on Twitter don’t know about the mute button. To find it, just click on the little gear wheel top right on someone’s home page. When you mute them their tweets don’t show up on your time line. They rant on in a vacuum, unaware that you aren’t listening.
Muting is also useful for people you follow and quite like, but who tend to dominate your time line. Some social media obsessives use special programmes that allow them to schedule tweets for later in the day. It’s a kind of social media presenteeism: they can create the impression they are online 24/7 when they are actually doing sensible things like earning a living.
And, of course, you can also unfollow people who turn boring or offensive. Once you clean up your feed, the twittersphere gradually becomes a different place, filled with interesting people having reasoned discussion. You can’t stop the odd troll butting in, but it is remarkable how little they bother you when they are instantly dispatched into darkness.
The word “troll” on social media does not, as many believe refer to the monstrous trolls of legend and computer games. As originally used on early internet bulletin boards it meant something like “trawling”, according to Jamie Bartlett in his book the Dark Net.
Trolling was a way of fishing for responses, getting attention, and there has been a long tradition of using hyperbolic abuse on the internet as a means of making your presence felt. Abuse or “flaming” as it is called was more than tolerated in the early days of the web; it was seen as a mark of defiance among the libertarians who first used the internet.
This mode of hyperbolic abuse is ok for geeks, but isn’t an appropriate mode of discourse for the public domain: the world of politics and the media. But somehow it has infected it. Politicians started to look upon Twitter as an alternative news and comment service. It isn’t. It’s more like a group therapy session where your enemies are allowed to listen in.
Twitter is fatally addictive to people like politicians who are anxious about what other people say about them. It’s like being able to hear what people say about you behind your back. It becomes a fixation, and it exploits a very human weakness: which is that we tend to pay more attention to negative things people say about us than positive things.
This is the tenth anniversary of Twitter, and it isn’t going away. So either take it for what it is or set it aside. Life is too short.