Wednesday, 19 January 2011
Heightened passions on Twitter - in defence of @pennyred
Giving away as little detail as possible “otherwise I'd have to kill you”, columnist and socialist activist Laurie Penny posted a job opportunity on her blog for a researcher to help her with her upcoming book.
By tweeting a link to the job description, in what may seem like an inoffensive use of social media to promote an offer, she sparked the fuse of right-wing blogger Guido Fawkes, who pounced at the chance to launch a vicious attack on the journalist.
A combined Twitter following of over 30,000 users witnessed yesterday's contemptuous exchange, which prompted emotional responses from supporters on either side.
And although I have no doubt that this made for an interesting Tuesday morning for the thousands of people sitting in front of a screen retweeting the spat, no one appears to have realised that had this occurred as a shouting match in an office, not only would they both have lost their jobs, but Fawkes would have been quite rightly villainised and reprimanded for his despicable lack of respect for a fellow journalist.
Having been a victim of cyberbullying myself, I am quick to condemn the actions of anyone cowardly enough to frantically bash away at a keyboard with the sole purpose of demonising someone else, which Fawkes undoubtedly did in his blog post 'Sexist Laurie Penny Exploits Unemployed, Pays Staff Below Minimum Wage', claiming that it was hypocritical of her to offer £500 for a month's part-time work.
What Fawkes seems to ignore is that the reality of the journalism and publishing industries make it as easy – if not easier – to fill such a position calling it an 'unpaid internship'. Had Penny not “passionately disapproved” of such tactics, she could have saved herself the money and got the work done anyway.
Putting aside the merits of the argument – unarguably initiated by Fawkes – the reaction on Twitter was perfectly encapsulated by media lawyer David Allan Green, who posted: “*munches popcorn whilst watching @guidofawkes and @PennyRed *”.
Despite Penny's relentless defence of her arguments, the insults kept coming, both on her Twitter stream and her blog.
The government defines bullying as including “abuse, physical or verbal violence, humiliation and undermining someone's confidence”. Yet there is no mention of cyberbullying other than in relation to teenagers.
Whether Penny felt humiliated or victimised is besides the point. A personal attack on the character of a person in front of tens of thousands of people is not an attitude that would be tolerated in any other walk of life.
Social networks are not soap operas with scripts of 140 characters, but interactions of real people in real time. Tragically, our society seems to have quickly become conditioned to see usernames as anonymous entities with no feelings or personalities behind them.
Luckily, Penny seemed unperturbed by the exchange. Let's just hope that next time Fawkes wakes up in in a particularly venomous mood, he doesn't choose to pick on someone with less of a thick-skin. Then again, maybe that's the only way we will ever wake up to the pitfalls of our abhorrent lack of sensitivity when it comes to online communication.