On Being Hounded off Twitter

I think I’m noticing a pattern develop in the less than harmonious way social media interfaces with journalism. I’m specifically going to avoid naming names, because I don’t really wish to pour petrol on flames.

However, it seems that there are a whole bunch of people who exist in a space between “random person on the Internet” and “so famous that someone manages their social media presence for them” who have embraced social media, and particularly Twitter, and possibly see it as a way to build their personal “brand”. Often these people are freelance columnists doing bits and pieces for newspapers and magazines. They perhaps see Twitter as a tool which can help them build their career.

And all goes well for a while, and they build a few tens of thousands of followers, and presumably think, “this is great! I get to share my thoughtful thoughts with the world and people will retweet them, and comment on them, and further build my presence!”

And then they say something that’s controversial in a way they weren’t hoping for.

What happens next is becoming a cliché: people object to a thing that’s been said. The author initially engages a bit. It rapidly becomes a self-sustaining blaze. Their phone starts going berserk with mention notifications, and they feel thoroughly got at. Within a few hours, they tend to shut down their twitter account.

The next wave will see their friends who also exist in a similar space, and who are using social media in a similar way, complain that they have been “hounded” off Twitter by “bullies”.

What I have to say next may not be popular, but I think it’s true:

This is your own fault and you need to take responsibility for your actions

Seriously, you engaged with something you didn’t fully understand, which worked well for you for a while, which you discovered can actually be really powerful, but which ultimately is not something you personally control. You were happy to use that power while it was working for you, but because you can’t control it there came a time when it did something else. When it did, it did it with all the power and speed that you previously relished, and which is now making you feel like you’re being buried under an avalanche.

In other words, you played with a powerful tool, the use of which you were not properly trained in, and recklessly concluded that this power was only ever going to work for you.

What would you think of someone who didn’t know how to drive a car getting in one and bombing down the M1, towards London, at 3 in the morning at 100mph? They’d presumably think they were having great fun as they sailed past town and city on a long, straight, empty road at 100mph.

And then these yellow lines appeared in front of them, and they have no idea what that means, and suddenly they’re on the North Circular road, still doing 100mph, with no actual idea how to drive.

That’s not hugely different to someone treating social media as something that will only ever advance their career. Twitter wasn’t built for the sole purpose of making your CV and ego larger and those tens of thousands of followers you were treating as a resource are real people who will just as soon turn on you as retweet your philosophical musings.

You need to deal with that, and not complain that bad things happen when you drive off the end of the M1 at 100mph.

14 thoughts on “On Being Hounded off Twitter

  1. Well said! I’ve been watching this too – it’s pretty stressful when you track how arguments begin, and then when the vitriol really steps up, it’s hateful.

  2. While not entirely unsympathetic to your view, I’d have to say that your metaphor doesn’t work. The driver you highlight would be breaking the law in numerous different ways and putting the lives of other people in danger. Not quite the same as expressing an opinion that other people disagree with.

    • It wouldn’t work if it were an allegory, where every facet was supposed to literally translate, but as you suggest it is a metaphor. I don’t intend to suggest that using twitter badly is illegal, or likely to involve high speed collisions (actually, it might if using it badly is while driving, but I digress), and I think that’s obvious from context.

    • While not directly applicable to the example Sarah uses, it’s also true that hate speech on Twitter is illegal (at least, in this country) and that bigotry arguably does lead to deaths.

  3. Absolutely agree. People are never going to agree on everything and people need to accept that. You need to accept that (a) your view will disagree with others and (b) those that disagree with your view will comment. Sometimes these comments can be a bit hateful or rude but just acknowledge, thats your view, thank you for sharing it with me and move on. There is a block button on twitter that you can use to avoid receiving hateful messages from individuals. People need to use this button more and not the oh woah is me I’m being bullied card. Sometimes I believe that people that shout about being bullied off, of social media are doing so for one thing….more attention, they need to grow up learn that this is life it’s not the school playground and take more responsiblity for what they say in the first place and behave like an adult and listen to all views.

  4. I agree that it’s irresponsible to assume that Twitter will only ever work for you, however it’s as much about the tool itself as the users who end up getting burned by it. Twitter is a great platform for sharing thoughts and engaging with other people, and for building a “personal brand”, as you say. However, it is a truly awful place to have a reasonable debate. It’s not cut out for it, making twitterstorms a predictable and fairly valueless result. It’s why Branch (branch.com/) was set up, which more people should use as a “take it outside folks” approach in order to have proper conversations and settle differences. It’s why I just wrote this: http://thelondonlad.wordpress.com/2013/04/15/my-problem-with-twitter/

  5. “This is your own fault and you need to take responsibility for your actions”

    I always think such a point is better made when directed at both the controversial authors and those who harrangue them. Whether random or famous, each needs to take responsibility for their actions.

    • Probably correct, but when you have 20,000 followers you need to be thinking about how that might not always work to your advantage.

  6. I think this is part of people learning how to use and adapt to new ways of communicating. Twitter is a relatively new medium for a lot of people, and while there is guidance on how to use it constructively, there’s no ‘right’ way to use it, just a better or different way.

    Most journalists have received the odd ranty letter, call, or email at some stage, and can usually handle that, but the immediacy and open nature of Twitter means you can receive thousands of rants in an incredibly short space of time. Most people have received constructive feedback at some point in their career, and taken individually, they can handle that too. But would you be so composed if you got thousands of people trying to give you advice simultaneously? Furthermore, a vast swathe of people can be anything but constructive, and can actively be aggressive, hostile, and hateful.

    I’m not saying people, and especially journalists, commentators, and others who make their views public shouldn’t take responsibility for those views. But we should remember that there’s a person at the other end of that @handle, and there’s a fine line between intelligent debate and a twitterstorm.

  7. I think if you drive off the M1 wt 100mph you are going too fast on the A1(M).

  8. I think that the central message, to take responsibility, is key. And certainly I think most, if not all of the examples, of people grumping off Twitter has been a result primarily of holes they have dug themselves.

    I do, however, think that a lot of these people aren’t necessarily naive or using Twitter for cynical ends (although I’m sure some are), but that part of this storming off is down to it being no fun to be criticised, whoever you are. As I say, in all of the examples I can think of, they behaved badly. But as often there seems to have been a period of escalation to that point.

    And I sometimes wonder whether there’s a disconnect between expecting people with 1000s of followers to put up with something we wouldn’t want to ourselves. I think there can be a tendency to think that stringent criticism is *more* acceptable to someone with a bigger profile. I certainly don’t think it is less acceptable, but trying to place myself in their shoes I can understand how overwhelming it must be to have 100s of comments criticising you (to be clear, that’s not to say the criticism isn’t valid).

    And while I think that comes back to taking responsibility for your own actions, there does seem to be a tendency to be less forgiving of mistakes to higher profile tweeters. Combined with the lack of nuance provided in 140 characters, too often these twitter storms escalate unnecessarily. And I wonder what the purpose is. Are we hoping to change their minds or views? Or are we just having fun with a higher profile name that we don’t like?

    Sorry for the overlong post 🙂

    • I’m a public figure myself. I “only” have around 3000 followers, but I get a lot of local and sometimes national, press interest I what I say and as I recently found out, if they can make me look stupid to sell newspapers, they will (the Telegraph proclaimed I want a “drugs ghetto”).

      I’m not commenting per se on the rights and wrong of the situation, but it is a fact that anyone in my position has to play by different rules to people who aren’t likely to be subject to those levels of scrutiny. If we are not careful what we say, it will come back to bite us. Any public figure, be they an elected politician or a newspaper columnist with a large social media profile NEEDS to understand this.

      The first thing I did when I got elected was to make my Twitter account private, and I kept it like that until I was sure it was safe to “come out again”, as it were. I had to learn what the ins and outs of my new constraints were.

      Frankly, some of these people want to have their cake and eat it. They want he relatively low effort boost that Twitter gives to their professional profile, but they don’t want to take on the risk and responsibility that comes with it.

      Yes, being criticised by large numbers or people is unpleasant. Trust me, I know: I have opposition councillors who try hard to make me look bad because they want me to lose my seat next year. However, the people we’re talking about here are all ones who have chosen to create a social media profile as a public figure. If they wanted to be treated like everyone else, and enjoy the relative obscurity that gives, they can use pseudonyms or private accounts. The fact is, they want the profile, and they have to work in the environment that implies, rather than the risk-free version they’d like to have.

  9. Fair points there. As I said, I agree with your point that it comes with responsibility and that should be exercised. For that reason, the actual events that lead to the disappearance from twitter (such as abusive tweets or publishing them without consent) can’t be excused. But I think sometimes we respond to arguments we disagree with in much the same way as we criticise bad behaviour on twitter, and from the receivee, there’s little to distinguish and so they don’t bother to try. I realise that’s uncomfortably close to tone policing, I’m just not convinced that the high profile flouncers have ever learnt much from the experience, or whether we can ever hope there’s anything we can do to get to that stage. Or whether it’s worth even trying. But I realise that’s a separate issue.

    Anyway, thought provoking blog. Thanks.

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