It was a Monday morning much like any other. There were jokes to make, news stories to mock, zingers to zing. Twitter was ticking over as it should, running as an infernal engine of bad humour and good information. And then it all went horribly wrong.
I blame the Wiggles. A story appeared on Stuff informing us that two of the Wiggles were now dating. It helps to know that following a lineup reshuffle, there is a woman in the previously all-male band. And that woman was seeing one of the band’s three remaining men. Having just read something about former Sonic Youth member Kim Gordon’s book Girl in a Band, in which a painful relationship breakup led to a sad band breakup, such issues were on my mind.
So I quipped to my Twitter followers, “Why you should never have chicks in the band. Couples break up, then the band breaks up”. And I linked to the Wiggles story. It all seemed fairly innocuous.
Then, out of nowhere: social media outrage.
“When do we call women ‘chicks’? Never!” thundered a male Twitter follower (I have added punctuation to his urgent tweet). A woman I don’t know demanded that I apologise immediately, but I would not.
“You’ve been asked not to use the term, apologise and move on,” she insisted. “Stop trying to defend this.”
Another person informed me, in all seriousness, that women are not poultry. A man compared me to the lowest form of life on the Internet, the “Gamergaters” who had only recently kicked up a sexist stink about women and video games. In all but one case, these attacks came from people I had never met.
It was exciting and utterly absurd. For about half an hour on an ordinary Monday in March, Twitter hell broke loose.
I’ve had a couple of those also. Twitter seems to be a home for permanent outrage. One US magazine actually did a calendar showing for every day of the year, what was causing outrage on Twitter that day.
Sadly the media partly fuel this. They now seem to add to half their stories, some random comments from Twitter.
When I’ve been the centre of abuse on Twitter, I simply turn notifications off and don’t check in for a day or two.
A woman named Adria Richards was in the audience at a technology conference in California when she overheard a couple of dudes making barely audible jokes to each other about “dongles”. It was probably a long day in an airless room. Richards took a picture of the two guys, put it on Twitter and shamed them as inappropriate sexists. One of them was fired as well.
An invasion of privacy. They were not the guest speakers, just in the audience joking to each other. And you had the recent example of the person who published photos of a couple breaking up on a plane, shaming them to a global audience.
I asked Twitter who the Twitterati are and the first answer was “you”. I guess I was asking for that one. But more serious answers followed. They are Left-leaning and self-important, they hunt in packs and devour their own. They are Wellington-based and professional, often posting anonymously because they have government jobs. They are outside the MSM (internet shorthand for “mainstream media”) and critical of it, and they see the worst political crime as being old, white, straight and male. Even if you can’t help being old, white, straight and male.
Not a bad summary. Those of us who fit at least two of those three have privilege and as far as I can tell, this means we must be in a continual state of atonement.
One name kept on coming up: Patrick Gower. Why him? Somehow he had come to embody everything the Twitterati hated. His reports on 3 News are provocative at times and often personalised but he seemed politically neutral. No-one could guess how Gower votes from how he reports. Paul Henry and Mike Hosking seemed much more pro-government.
Was there was something jagged and disruptive about Gower that was breaking up the smoothness of commercial television and was it getting under the skin of the Twitterati?
It didn’t take long to see that he had been winding them up. When other mainstream journalists are called government shills or stooges by the angry Twitter Left, they might ignore it or block it out. But Gower was giving it back to them. Media companies want journalists to be engaged on Twitter and other social platforms but Gower was taking engagement to a whole new level.
I admired it. It was lively stuff but there was an unreality about it all too, as though Gower was just amusing himself while getting on with his real work. Maybe this is what annoyed his Twitter critics so much. Perhaps they sensed that he wasn’t taking it as seriously as they were.
They would criticise his reports. He would reply “Yawn”.
Gower has had huge abuse on Twitter. It used to really impact him. He tried ignoring it but then worked out that you fight fire with fire, and he often will troll the trolls.
Twitter became a hive of “intolerant argument and abuse”, said former political journalist Bill Ralston in a Radio New Zealand discussion after the election. Like Gower, Ralston started some of those arguments as well as being on the receiving end of some of the abuse. But Ralston also thought that the mainstream media looked at Twitter, saw a lot of Left-wing activity and misread the wider electoral mood. In reality, the centrist New Zealand that isn’t on Twitter and doesn’t follow a handful of political bloggers did what it always did.
There is a kind of angry impotence about the Left on Twitter. You saw it when social media noise misled Labour supporters in the UK just as it misled them here. After Labour’s Ed Miliband lost, Helen Lewis in the New Statesmantalked about the Left-wing echo chamber that is social media, which lures the Left into “cosy delusion and dangerous insularity”. You surround yourself with people who think the same.
Many only follow people with views they agree with. Or sometimes they will follow others just so they can abuse them and tell them they’re wrong.
It is much worse on Twitter than Facebook. I’ve blocked probably two people on Facebook but off hand probably 200 to 300 on Twitter for abuse.