23 May, 2010

Twourette’s Syndrome

We seem to have gone a few weeks without any public figures saying regrettable things on Twitter or Facebook.   Perhaps people are beginning to learn from others’ mistakes.

One of the earlier gaffes came last year when US Congressman Pete Hoekstra compared Republican obstructionism to Iranian democracy protesters.  Then there was the Fairfax sub-editor who was sacked for ’blogging about how boring his job was.  Earlier this year a rising star of the Queensland Young Liberals, Nick Snowden had his political career cut short (or at least postponed) after commenting on Twitter during Kerry O’Brien’s interview with Barack Obama that it would have been cheaper to send O’Brien to Taronga Zoo if he wanted to interview a monkey.*  And more recently, we have had Catherine Deveny’s outbursts.  Miranda Devine wrote a very good reply to her, then went and negated it all by suggesting that a critic of her position on gay marriage had been rogering gerbils.  She then redeemed herself with a sensitive defence of David Campbell.

All this is symptomatic of people thinking they understand the internet better than they really do.  It amazes me that so many apparently “tech savvy” people, are stuck in the 1990s notion that the internet is some kind of counter-culture where one can say what one wants, unobserved by the suits or the straights or the wrinklies.  They really need to drag themselves into the 21st century and understand that we all have the internet now.  The occasional clueless person talking about “the Google,” or “a series of tubes,” or even the hipsters’ own ironic references to “teh interwebz” is not going to change that.  Your boss has the internet too.  Your teacher has the internet.  Your parents have the internet.  Your partner has the internet.  Your opposition has the internet.  It’s not your private playground any more.

I think the other problem is that a lot of people are treating online social media like their own personal sit-com.  You know the shows where the audience can hear what the main character is thinking but the rest of the cast can’t?  I think that’s what a lot of people are expecting their Twitter and Facebook accounts to be.  They forget that online, the cast is also the audience and the audience is also the cast.  I expect Pete Hoekstra and Nick Snowden thought their comments would be as well received by their online audience as they would be by their mates down the pub, which is where such comments probably belong.  This is another thing that the internet is not.  It’s not your secret speakeasy, it’s not your own series of Herman’s Head, and it’s not like making comments to your mates while watching tele.

No-one is suggesting that people shouldn’t be able to say whatever they want in whatever forum they want.  But as I wrote last year, the right to free speech does not protect you from the consequences of exercising that right.  You don’t have to constantly act like Big Brother is watching, just remember where you are and act accordingly.  It’s possible to make a Twitter account private so that only approved followers can see what you’re saying.  I have a Facebook account, but I’ll lay odds that you won’t be able to find it, even if you know my last name, my email address and where I live. 

What’s missing, is a name for this impulsive behaviour that can often translate into a career limiting move.  I suggest, Twourette’s Syndrome – the frequent, uncontrollable posting of inappropriate comments online.

* Just for the record, although I’ve had a lot to say about George W Bush, and very little of it complimentary, I never had any time for all the Bush/chimp stuff.  That was inappropriate on several levels.  I’ll give Nick Snowden the benefit of the doubt that he was calling Obama a monkey in the same way people called Bush a monkey and that it was not a racist comment.  It’s still not a good look for an aspiring politician. 


  1. I do find it interesting how people see the web as a totally different channel - it's just another channel for getting messages out.

    Yes, it can have a different audience but it's still public fodder

    In emails, on facebook, on twitter you shouldn't say anything you wouldn't say in person. People forget there isn't context, there are no annonciations or non verbals to rely on. Even with my friends we sometimes misunderstand each other online.... so what can you expect out of people who are potentially complete strangers.

    All that being said, the 'outrage' on Deveney's twitter comments, came from people who were not the target audience, and those people who were on twitter can use that medium to deal with her... as I did with many of her ANZAC day comments, which I disagreed with.

    Journalists making a story out of her and Wil Andersons tweets, and being outraged I think is wrong. While yes it's a public place, the people who read the herald sun are not the audience who were meant for the tweets, and probably would never have known about it if it was for this lazy journalism.

    But Julian Morrow discusses this much more eloquently than I can.

    But my work was part of one of these perceived outrages and it was interesting to see how the whole thing played out, when people weren't really outraged at all, it was just about people reading papers....

    Anyhow great blog again

  2. Wil Anderson's comments were utterly tame compared to his savaging of Gretel Killeen last year. By that time, he was basically drunk dialing, but seeing TV people get pissed and embarrass themselves is what the night is all about. I almost felt sorry for Gretel, but figured that since she had made a career out of commenting on other people's behaviour regardless of how embarrassing to them it was, you could just call it karma.

    I absolutely agree about the manufactured outrage. But equally, people like Deveny should know better than to give 3AW and the Hun that kind of ammunition. And also, the problem with the "target audience" argument is that it's the same excuse that right-wing loudmouths like Bolt or Jones use - they're not out to impressed the latte-sipping chardonnay socialists. Yes, we know they're hypocrites, but why make it so easy for them?