My thoughts have been provoked lately, specifically by a blog by Nicola Woolhouse about social networking in general and Twitter in particular. Nic blogged about what the consequences of our online interactions maybe and how those actions and interactions can affect others without our even realising it. Twitter is used by millions of people for many different reasons, but by its very nature Twitter is very much about the ‘look at me’ attitude of today. However, Twitter is increasingly also being used as a means of keeping up with current affairs. This can be a great tool and by following the right people it’s a fantastic way of getting the latest on news stories and often an alternative view to that which is being covered in the mainstream media. But this can also be where the problems start.
Take today for instance – this morning a news story spread like wildfire on Twitter. It was about a man called Paul Clarke who said he found a gun in his garden, he then inexplicably kept it over night before calling the police to say he was coming into the police station (although not telling them why), before turning up at the station with a sawn-off shotgun and ammunition in a bin bag – where he was promptly arrested for possession of a firearm without a licence. Mr Clarke has been convicted and is awaiting sentencing, where he may face being handed the minimum sentence for this offence, of a five year jail sentence. The story was reported in Surrey Today here and picked up by several bloggers, including Constantly Furious . When a link to this blog was retweeted by Graham Linehan (@Glinner) the outrage really started to spread and a twitter mob quickly formed. On the face of it this looked like a massive miscarriage of justice – a man doing his ‘civic duty’ and handing in a shotgun to the police is now facing a jail term. However, many people, including the lawyer-cum-blogger Jack of Kent (who is often the voice of reason on Twitter) quickly put forward some counter-arguments to try and calm rather than fan the flames of the baying crowds. Yes, it seems ludicrous that if the facts of the story are as they have been reported then surely there is no way Paul Clarke should be facing a jail sentence. However, there are many questions that haven’t been answered – why did he not call the police immediately and get them to collect the gun? Why did he wait until the following day before taking the gun to the police station? When he did call the police why did he not tell them he was bringing the gun in? And if his story is true, why did the CPS choose to prosecute?
The problem with Twitter is that a ‘mob’ can quickly form. All it takes is one celebrity with a lot of followers (Graham Linehan has over 34,000) to tweet or retweet something for it to be blindly retweeted over and over again with out anyone bothering to check out the story for themselves. Even when, within a couple of hours of his original post, Linehan started tweeting links to Jack of Kent and others, people were still retweeting the original post with no qualification. I don’t mean to pick on Linehan in particular here, there were several other celebrities guilty of the same ‘tweet now, think later’ attitude. This tendency towards a ‘mob mentality’ was covered in an excellent blog from Paul Bailey after the Jan Moir Daily Mail and Trafigura episodes in October. It’s very easy to take everything at face value, particularly when it comes from a source whose opinions you value and respect. The lesson here surely is, think before you tweet and do your research!
I am also finding I am thinking a bit more about what I tweet since I have started on my teacher training course. As I commented on Nic’s blog, I am more aware that my personal and professional lives are now inexorably linked. I am concerned that I need to be more wary of what I say online – but should this really be necessary? Should I be worried about a pupil or a parent perhaps stumbling upon my Twitter account (or this blog for that matter)? What would the professional consequences be for me if they did, and found something inappropriate? Not that I ever post anything especially controversial, but there’s a fair amount of swearing, and even the recent comments on the Precious Little podcast, although said in jest and taken in the spirit they were intended by me, may cause offence or seem inappropriate if they were heard by a parent or a potential employer.
Nic made the point that many people aren’t the same as they are in real life as they are when posting online, whether on Twitter or Facebook or some other social networking site or forum. We nearly all hold something of ourselves back, or even go in the other direction and are more outgoing and open online. I think I am pretty much myself online, a view which has been confirmed by some of those people who I met online before meeting in real life. I do self-censor what I write on Facebook, mostly because my Mum is on Facebook so I would never post anything I wouldn’t be happy for her to read. Twitter is a different matter and I think I do say pretty much whatever I like. I rarely tweet (or blog for that matter) if I’m feeling down (although that happens very rarely anyway) although I did make an exception a couple of weeks ago when I blogged about how scared I was before my first solo teaching. And I got an enormous amount of support from people on Twitter, some of whom I knew and some I didn’t. I do try and offer support to others where I can but there are a few people on Twitter who spend so much time moaning I tend to mostly ignore them – it’s a bit like the boy who cried wolf.
Despite all this and my increasing concern that my new career is going to leave me with no choice but to limit my online activity I am a huge fan of Twitter. In the last year, without Twitter, I would never have made so many friends who I then met up with in real life. I wouldn’t have had the courage to approach so many comedians during the Edinburgh Fringe had I not ‘spoken’ to them online before had. I wouldn’t be half as aware of the news and current events as I am now. And I wouldn’t have so much fun listening to the Precious Little podcast – which has now become a weekly event where I listen with my friends around the world and we tweet along together.
This post hasn’t been very coherent and I’m not really sure what my point is but I hope that perhaps it can make a few more people think for a minute about what their online presence says about them, just like the blogs of the others I have mentioned here did for me.