Twitter overloaded with the abusive and inane
The more air-headed exponents of social media have had a busy time of it this week, trying to transform Melbourne comedian Catherine Deveny into a cause celebre for the anti-censorship cause.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, all the hoopla about the British poll being “the first twitter election” has evaporated as the campaign has turned on the work of traditional journalism and conventional public discourse.
It hasn’t been a great week for social media. Despite its many benefits – sharing content with like-minded people, engaging in conversation about topics of mutual interest – two of its key limitations have been laid bare by these unrelated events.
The first is that it is often hijacked by blowhards such as Deveny with nothing of value to say. The second is that it lacks the structure and rigour to replace conventional journalism as a source of news. It can augment it – sometimes brilliantly – but it will not replace it. In the case of the British election you could argue that it doesn’t necessarily augment it very well.
Let’s start with the Deveny case. It’s unlikely that Deveny will become the new pin-up girl for Australia’s Right to know campaign, nor the subject of an international letter-writing campaign by Amnesty International.
Deveny’s supporters have tried to position their twittering comic heroine as the victim of big media, following her dumping by The Age over her string of stream-of-consciousness gags on Logie night.
She is, of course, no such thing. She was only employed by The Age as a contributor, not as a member of staff, meaning her continuing presence on its pages was always subject to the discretion of the editor of the day.
She is actually a victim of the heartening mainstream conviction that, for all the giggly tosh that’s spouted about the edgy new world of social media, manners still count for something.
The Age was in no way leading the campaign against their well-read columnist, or initiating the public outrage over her Logie Night tweets. Rather, The Age was responding to that outrage, and acted to stem a backlash against the masthead.
Deveny was brought down by two tweets – which, for the uninitiated, are messages of 140 characters or less posted to the wider world via the Twitter website.
The first involved Steve Irwin’s 11-year-old daughter Bindi – “I do so hope that Bindi Irwin gets laid tonight”. I have to admit to briefly sniggering in amazement at this deeply offensive gag, as it did seem based in a valid comical observation about this child starlet being cursed to live out a strange life on the public stage.
That said, it was massively tasteless, and Deveny was mad to write it. But it was nowhere near as tasteless as her vile second tweet, where she expressed hope that the new partner of Rove McManus “doesn’t die too”, in a sick reference to the death of the TV star’s wife Belinda Emmett from cancer just a few years ago.
The explanations from Deveny and her cheer squad have been dissembling, and often just plain dumb.
On the Rove tweet, Deveny held her hand to her heart and said she had worked with McManus for years and would never do anything to offend him, as it to suggest that Rove would not only not be offended but possibly even entertained by public gags at the expense of his late wife.
The broader justification Deveny mounted for her conduct was that the whole thing was some kind of zany mix-up, that Twitter was the equivalent of “passing notes in class”, and that she regarded her statements as akin to jokes among friends. It’s a rubbish excuse, Twitter is just another form of publishing, it is a wholly public domain, one used by more than 50 million people worldwide.
Fifty million people can’t be wrong, but they can also be no more informed than they would otherwise have been about a major news event such as the British election by using social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter
Screeds of copy were written in advance of the British poll about how social media was now so well-established that it would become the dominant vehicle for policy debate and political scandal throughout the campaign.
The opposite has proven to be true.
The defining feature of this election has been the rise of the Liberal-Democrats. At the time of writing this column, voting had not yet started in the British poll, but all the indicators were that the Lib-Dems could win around one third of the vote. This extraordinary surge by this formerly irrelevant political force reflects widespread voter disenchantment with the major parties, and the biggest driver of that was the series of exclusives by London’s Daily Telegraph exposing the entrenched rorts culture which had infected large sections of both the Labour Party and the Tories.
The newspaper’s sustained campaign on this issue shattered the defeatist myth that the print media can no longer drive up circulation because of the rise of online. It was a great story and it sold like hotcakes, and the issues it raised have endured for the better part of two years.
Also, this has been the first British election which has featured a leaders’ debate. Every British voter with access to a television – that is, pretty much all of them – could for the first time see Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg going head-to-head and draw their own conclusions about what they had seen, and discuss it with family and friends over the coming days. Again, very old-fashioned stuff, but an enormous factor in Clegg’s success in establishing himself as a credible leader.
It was the power of television and audio which ensnared Prime Minister Brown in an appalling mid-campaign stuff-up where he was caught on tape deriding an elderly lady voter as a bigot and denouncing an advisor for sending him into an unscripted encounter with the great unwashed.
All of these things have been discussed at length and with vigour on social media sites, which is great, but in every case the conversation has been led by the work of traditional news organisations.
And those of us who still get a kick out the arcane art of leader writing have been thrilled to see that even the publication by The Guardian of its first-ever editorial backing the Liberal-Democrats has itself become a news story.
You can tweet all you like, and update your Facebook status with glee, but you should do so in the knowledge that it might actually leave you feeling more offended and less informed than when you got out of bed in the morning.
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