Getting the last word in a Twitter argument

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“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

There was a frisson of controversy on the Twitter over the past few days, when a couple of people had a Twitter argument (a twargument? a twitspat? careful), which then continued in email, and then continued in blog entries, and ended up with neither side being covered in glory.

It’s an interesting case study in how nobody can get the last word in an argument online, no matter how hard they try. It’s also a case study in the curious effects of Twitter celebrity and the illusion of closeness.

Some of us are conflict-averse, and will walk away from an argument rather than get involved. But if you want to really upset someone who disagrees with you, try blocking them: then the blood will rise.

This kind of thing is an interesting adjunct to the comments on/comments off debate in blogging. Some prominent bloggers (notably Daring Fireball‘s John Gruber) don’t allow comments on their blogs. They have various reasons for this. In Mr Gruber’s case, I suspect he just didn’t want to deal with the never-ending (since the 80s) Mac vs. PC debate, or the kind of people who (still) think it’s worth having. The attitude is best summed up in the argument that if you’ve got an opinion, start your own blog.

I like this attitude. I mostly don’t get comments on my blogs. Of the few I do get, a tiny percentage aren’t spam. I’ve hit upon the compromise of allowing comments for 14 days (this is one of the settings WordPress offers) and it seems quite sensible. This means you don’t have to deal with spam comments on older posts till the end of time.

You can read more about the comments on/off debate here. Those opposed to comments off seem to think that the whole internet is their playground or something, and get enraged when their opportunity to post their badly-spelled immediate gut reaction is locked off.

(As an aside, I’ve noticed with interest that The Guardian, for example, allows comments on most things, but does switch them off for certain writers who are bound to provoke the kind of mouth-frothing hatred that nobody wants to see: Stewart Lee, for example.)

I block a lot of people on Twitter. All those avatars showing attractive young women in bathing costumes who are apparently so fascinated with my rants about the queues at the channel tunnel that they decide to follow me? I’m pretty sure they’re spambots (twitbots). I’d also block anybody, in a heartbeat, who offended me. And I know enough about the horrible things that some women on Twitter experience that I completely understand why Emma Kennedy chose to block a certain male follower who carried on a public argument with her beyond what the reasonable person in the street might call a reasonable limit.

But being blocked seems to upset some people more than others. They behave like the drunk guy who’s been kicked out of a bar, and continues to rant and shout outside in the street. And I tell you, it must really hurt to be blocked by someone you admire. It must make you want to go on explaining yourself over and over again until the person understands that you’re not a bad guy, that you didn’t mean to cause offence/alarm – all of which explaining only serves to exacerbate the situation and make you seem even more of a creep, thus confirming the person’s opinion of you.

Emma Kennedy (@EmmaK67) is a great example of a Twitter celebrity (Twitterati). She doesn’t have as many followers as someone like Richard Bacon (@richardpbacon, 1.3 million) or Stephen Fry (@stephenfry, 3.7 million), but at 44,000 she’s got a lot more than most. Like her friend Danny Baker (@prodnose, 107,208), she’s got the perfect skill set for Twitter. She’s got a way with one-liners, and has enough of the common touch that she seems approachable. This means, I think, that people who don’t know what it’s like to have 44,000 followers expect more of a personal touch than they’re going to get.

The argument she had was with Jon Spira (@videojon, 641 followers*), and it concerned the question of whether writers should be paid. The topic of the argument matters little here, but I’ll go over it a bit. Danny Baker had tweeted that he’d been offered a “prestige” writing job, which he’d turned down on the grounds that “prestige” meant no pay. Emma Kennedy chimed in with her opinion that writers should always be paid and if no writer worked for free, then this kind of piss-taking wouldn’t take place in the Media industry. Because you can bet your life that someone is getting paid, even if they’re asking the writer to work for free.

I completely agree with her there. I’ve worked in so many jobs where stress and pressure are created because some people are too spineless to stand up for themselves or do the right thing. If people don’t stand together, things fall apart.

The argument started because Mr Spira pointed out that the reality of today’s exploitative media industry meant that people were forced to work for no or little pay in order to get a start. Because people work for nothing, other people work for nothing. In many ways he was making the same point as Ms Kennedy, but seeing it from the point of view of someone desperately keen to get into an industry that relies on that enthusiasm to rip people off and exploit them.

You might start as a Runner on very low pay, or you might work as an intern for nothing. In some areas of the media, people actually pay for the privilege of working as an intern. It’s seen as part of the training, in the same way that junior doctors are expected to work double shifts. I’m pretty sure they’re not being paid much for that dubious privilege, but as someone pointed out on the Today programme the other day, if they don’t work ridiculously long hours, they don’t get enough experience early on in their careers to make them effective doctors.

So it goes, the great merry go round. Because someone will work for nothing, other people have to. Just as Ms Kennedy was completely right, so was Mr Spira.

Here we have a situation that represents a good example of Jean-François Lyotard’s idea of the differend. The reason they would never agree was that they weren’t really talking about the same thing. I’m sure Ms Kennedy would never deny that a lot of movie scripts are written “on spec”, or that people sometimes help out for nothing on a project that has no budget. All student projects, after all, have no budget. On the other hand, I’m sure Mr Spira would agree that if a production company has a budget and the producers are being paid, then so should the writer(s) be paid, even if it means the producers being paid slightly less.

You can be using the same language but talking about different things, so you’ll never agree. Combine this with personality types (the kind of people who simply must have the last word in an argument), and it’s an explosive mixture.

Why couldn’t Mr Spira let it go? I refer you to the brilliantly funny Hierarchy of Digital Distractions: when one of the “little people” gains attention from one of the Twitterati, it’s a Very Big Thing. You know if you got a reply from a Twitterato, you’d be talking about it for a week. This is on the level of Deep Contact, Deep Appreciation and Mystery. Of course he’s going to want to prolong this heady experience as long as possible. Of course he’s going to blog about it. Wouldn’t you?

Ms Kennedy was a bit annoyed that he’d expanded the whole thing by blogging about it, because it meant that his “supporters” unhelpfully started to bombard her with @comments (note: people really shouldn’t do this), which made her feel harassed. But being a Twitterati (even if minor when compared to the really big hitters), she failed to understand what a Big Thing it was for Mr Spira to receive her attention, even her tetchy and irritated attention.

So what have we learned? As Ms Kennedy points out on her blog, things can escalate pretty fast on Twitter. We’ve seen it many times just this last year. Twitter feeding frenzies are something to behold. New media has genuinely given people power, power they never had before, to do all kinds of things, to participate in all kinds of ways. Just as this means that we (all of us) need to be aware of ethics and the laws of defamation, we also need to be aware that power should be exercised responsibly.

When it comes to comments and @messages, I always operate on the level of, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” I don’t think there’s ever been an occasion when I’ve written something nasty or personal and haven’t quickly regretted it.

But I’m not here to have the last word. Let’s give that to Ms Kennedy:

So what have I learned from all of this? Arguing with people you don’t know on Twitter is a terrible idea. 140 characters allows for things to escalate and fast. You cannot hear someone’s tone of voice. You can infer insult when none may have been intended. Other people get involved and then it’s like a feeding frenzy where everyone is livid and the issue you’re arguing over in the first place is totally forgotten. Sometimes I am an arsehole. Sometimes, other people are arseholes. Sometimes, we’re arseholes together. And I think, genuinely, in this instance, that Jon Spira and I were both arseholes.

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*No hint of a sneer from me there, by the way. I’ve only got 80 followers, only some of whom are real people

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