The Twitterverse is huge: it consists of 300 million users and hosts conversations on a mind-boggling range of interests and issues. I dwell only in a small part of that place – the part which monitors and debates Australian politics. There you will find professional and amateur political junkies, journalists, bloggers, staffers, MPs, lobbyists, interest group personnel and some academics.
It’s not a place for the faint hearted. Political tweeps monitor their friends as well as their foes, and are likely pounce on unthinking or considered comments alike to score a debating point or defend their cause.
The very public nature of Twitter discussions can encourage groupthink and a pack mentality can easily take hold. It’s not uncommon for a tweep on one side of a debate to be bombarded with responses from the other side. These contributions can range from a considered engagement with the issue, to highly personal attacks. Someone once compared it to a lone tennis player battling with a demonic ball-throwing machine.
That’s all well and good. If you want to be loud and opinionated on Twitter then you must be prepared to engage with people who disagree with you. That’s a basic tenet. But what has struck me recently about Twitter is its ‘nastification’. While Twitter once seemed a place of wit, satire and cynicism, built upon a strong foundation of good humour, it now seems to be built upon self-righteousness, and characterised by ridicule, denigration and dismissiveness.
In my experience, this is particularly evident with the younger progressives who discuss Australian politics on Twitter. Once they were the clear majority in this part of the Twitterverse, receiving affirmation from the many others who agreed with them. But Twitter’s demographic has since broadened to include vocal conservatives, libertarians, other small L liberals and even Marxists who challenge the young progressives’ undergraduate style of political discourse. Suddenly the cool kids are not so cool any more. And they are resorting to dismissal and denigration in an attempt to discredit those who are not like them.
I’ve previously referred to the part of Twitter that I inhabit as being like a vast ballroom filled political aficionados milling about, talking in clusters. But it’s become more like a room of student politicians, snarking about what someone is wearing (eg. #tightsarenotpants), how someone is ignorant and therefore not entitled to discuss the matter (eg. “this conversation is full of #derp”) or generally making fun of a person outside their earshot or tweetstream using a denigrating hashtag or meme (eg. #hysteriagate).
These are subtle styles of bullying, intended to isolate and discredit those who choose not to fall into line with how the cool kids think. A recent Drum piece on intellectual honesty posits a number of other ways that people try to discredit or browbeat others into silence. The piece omits, however, what I’ve observed to be the most common method used in this part of Twitter to undermine another’s point of view: the ad hominem accusation, or “playing the man and not the ball”.
The tendency by weak debaters to use the ad hominem rationale is the main reason I’ve kept my pseudonym for as long as I have. I love to have debates about political issues, but my past roles as PR consultant, press secretary and lobbyist are sometimes used to dismiss my views. “Well you would say that,” is just as much a productive debating tool as “talk to the hand”.
I don’t pretend that my hands are clean when it comes to using acerbic debating tactics on Twitter. I’ve ridiculed (with tongue firmly planted in cheek) the Pomodoro writing technique, SayYes rallies and the opponents of pineapple on pizza. And yes, I’ve struck back at individuals when I’ve felt affronted by them. But I believe the closest I’ve come to an ad hominem accusation is to point out that political staffers on Twitter are paid to support and defend their employers’ policies.
So I kept a pseudonym to see if my opinions could withstand scrutiny without being summarily dismissed as partisan or biased views.
I’ll admit that the experiment failed. As I got to know a few people in real life that I’d met on Twitter, some could not help during a heated debate to bring up my past to discredit my views. Others have privately threatened to ‘out’ Drag0nista on confected conflict of interest grounds. I must stress that bullying people in an attempt to stifle debate is not necessarily restricted to the progressive side of politics – The Australian’s shameful unveiling of GrogsGamut is a case in point.
It’s not just the bullying or the nastification of Twitter that has led me to disclose that I’m Drag0nista. It’s because, over time, I’ve realised that I’m not comfortable reading someone’s opinion without context. As a former media adviser, I always interpret reports and analysis written by journalists depending upon what I know about them. This might include who their official partner or unofficial lover is, whether they have a close relationship with MPs or people in politicians’ offices, and who they have worked with/for in other roles.
Similarly, when I read a piece on The Drum, I automatically scroll down to the author’s description so that I can contextualise what they are saying. This is not a mechanism to screen out what are valid and invalid views, but one that gives me a deeper understanding of what is being said.
So I have grown to accept that people who read my tweets and blog posts also have the right to read my views in context. That’s why I’ve decided to make this disclosure today.
I intend to keep the name Drag0nista as a pseudonym for tweeting and blogging purposes. I shall also include disclose my true name to give readers context and for transparency purposes.
No doubt the ad hominem attacks will continue. But I hope that people will see this move more as an invitation to engage with me in discussion, than an opportunity to dismiss what I have to say.
This post first appeared at The Drum