Before I begin, I’d like to make one thing very clear. I love Twitter. It is in equal parts hilarious, educational and informative. It’s also very equal. Twitter and other social networking sites are the realisation of what Marshall McCluhan meant when he was talking about his ‘global village’ in the late sixties. He would be pleased. It’s also probably more in keeping with what Tim Berners Lee wanted when he came up with the www. protocol, before that got all corporate and stuffy. This is going to sound very un-academic but Twitter is ace. So what you are about to read is written by a fan and is not another turgid social networking bashing piece.
However, Twitter is nothing but a piece of technology and the ultimate test of any technology is how it is used. Responsibility lies with the users of the site to ensure that lawful, ethical behaviour is observed. There have, in the past couple of weeks, been two demonstrations of Twitter being used in an irresponsible and uncaring fashion.
The first is the case of Paul Chambers, who, frustrated at a travel delay, vented his spleen via Twitter by suggesting that he would like to do something very unsavoury to Robin Hood Airport in Nottingham. As this involved reducing it to rubble through bombs, he was duly prosecuted by the CPS on the basis that an electronic communication carried a message of harm. This conviction was quashed on its third appeal on the basis that Chambers never meant or thought that his 140 character rant would be taken seriously and that the offending tweet was meant in jest.
Then, team GB diver Tom Daley was subjected to abusive tweets, which carried detrimental comments about his father who died from a brain tumour. This is because Daley and his fellow competitor failed to achieve a medal placing in the synchronised diving event. The perpetrator was traced to Weymouth and arrested. It was subsequently revealed that this was not the first time he had done this sort of thing and that he suffers from ADHD.
Which brings me to responsibility. In the case of Chambers, justice was probably done, but you have to question the wisdom of reaching for Twitter as a conduit for his frustrations. As his QC pointed out, a joke is still a joke even if it’s not particularly or even remotely funny. Daley retweeted one of the abusive messages he received, which suggests a certain level of maturity and responsibility in his understanding of the medium. What both Chambers and the sender of the messages to Daley should realise is that at times of stress and/or anger it’s probably wise to leave Twitter well alone. You see it doesn’t matter what you tweet or to who. That’s because in an electronic socially networking age there’s always someone watching you somewhere.
P.S. As I was writing this I read that Blue Peter presenter Helen Skelton has left Twitter because of the negative comments she receives.