How to survive Twitter

How to survive Twitter

Christmas Day this year marked the ten-year anniversary since I first joined Twitter. In many senses, that single act changed the course of my life.

If it wasn’t for Twitter, I’d probably still be working as a highly-paid corporate shill. Instead, I’m scratching out an existence as a writer in the gig economy. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Polite and not-so-polite exchanges on Twitter taught me to challenge my own views on a whole range of issues, to distinguish what I really thought from what I’d been told to think, and to find better ways of explaining these views to others.

And in a round-about way, Twitter led me back to writing. It was someone on Twitter, with whom I was having a ‘vigorous’ discussion, who suggested that I should blog about the contested subject. At the time I didn’t read blogs, let alone have one, so this was an almost completely foreign concept to me.

However, I did start the blog and the rest, as they say, is history. These days, I post on the blog infrequently. It’s more a repository for posts and columns that were published elsewhere. Most of my current writing is either for The New Daily, the Despatches newsletter or on my Patreon page.

But given it’s my tenth anniversary on the twits I thought it might be worth sharing a few thoughts on the blog about how to survive Twitter.

Mute and block: If you do nothing else, at least take control of your interactions on Twitter. Your experience can be improved considerably if you curate your tweetstream. The easiest way to do this is to mute and block. If you hate reading cricket tweets over summer, mute the hashtag that most sports fans use. If there’s a troll or bully who won’t leave you alone, but you don’t want to give them the satisfaction of being blocked, then mute them.

I tend to use the mute button if I don’t want to see someone’s tweets, and the block button if I don’t want them to see mine. It’s not a perfect system, but it does the job most of the time.

Use lists: An even better way to improve your Twitter experience is to create a list of your favourite tweeps and follow their tweets instead of everyone that you follow. Make the list private (you can do that in the list settings) so that no-one can see who’s on it (not even the people who are on it). Every time someone new engages with you in a friendly or interesting way, put them on the list too.

Before long, you’ll have a little community of interesting and engaging tweeps to chat with. Remember to avoid creating an echo chamber though, made up only of tweeps who agree with you. Be sure to include people who civilly disagree with you too. They’re the ones who will help you to improve your own thoughts and arguments. I owe a great deal to people like that on Twitter.

Snark alert: I don’t need to tell you how tempting it is to post a quick snark to someone or about someone on the twits. Most of us get a little thrill when the post gets retweeted or faved, which only serves to reinforce our nasty streak. It can be equally tempting to jump into an argument that has nothing to do with us, or to participate in a juicy little pile on.

None of us are perfect, but if we all thought twice before posting such tweets, the Twitter experience might be a lot more pleasant for everyone. Be nice, it won’t kill you, and ask yourself whether you really need to buy into/create that war. Yes, I know there are exceptions, when people are ‘asking’ for it by being total arses themselves, but perhaps even in those cases it would make more sense to ignore the tweep than give them the attention they clearly seek.

Similarly, don’t fall into the trap of arguing with bots (their Twitter handles often end in a list of numbers), megaphones (usually political partisans) or sea lions. They’re just not worth the emotional energy.

Two glass rule: My final tip for surviving Twitter is to embrace the two glass rule. This is a carryover from my time as a media adviser, when I would never answer a phone call from a journalist if I’d had more than two glasses of wine (I pretty much exclusively drank wine in those days). That way I’d avoid saying more than I should.

The same applies with Twitter – if you’re going to enjoy more than a couple of glasses of your favourite beverage, invoke the two glass rule and leave Twitter for the evening. It will still be there in the morning, I promise. And you will have avoided saying more than you should!

Those are my top tips for surviving Twitter. If you have any other suggestions, feel free to share them in the comments.

And if you’re into making new year’s resolutions, this might be a good place to start.

Not Leigh Sales’ job to save Labor

I’ve written before that Twitter has become an unexpected school of politics, providing a unique forum for people with less knowledge of our civic processes to learn from those with more. When those discussions are taking place, Twitter is vibrant and all-embracing democracy at its best.

Well, Wednesday night was NOT one of those times.

Over a particular 24 hour period Twitter demonstrated just how aggressively puerile it can be. And in spitting their dummies in ever-lengthening arcs, partisan tweeps missed the point altogether.

The event in question was the long-awaited interview by 730’s Leigh Sales of the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott.

Screen Shot 2013-04-26 at 12.02.27 AMThe interview was long-awaited for two reasons: it had literally been quite some time since Sales had last interviewed Abbott. The Leader of the Opposition’s team had clearly been keeping him away from “hard” political interviews, choosing instead to conduct photo-opportunities with limited questions from the media, stand up press conferences from which he could stride away when the questions become unwanted and set-piece speeches and events like the recent community forum with its hand-picked audience.

The other reason the interview was long-anticipated was that on the previous occasion Abbott had been interviewed by Sales, he’d been ill-prepared and she’d made the most of it. Abbott’s poor performance that night was the main reason he’d been kept away from hard interviews ever since.

But Wednesday afternoon, Sales tweeted as she often does at that time of day to announce her interview guest would be Tony Abbott. Twitter went aflutter. The Press Gallery must have too, with Age columnist Tony Wright writing this breathless preview.

From then until the program went to air, Sales was bombarded with tweets giving gratuitous advice on what questions she should ask.

Screen Shot 2013-04-26 at 12.40.25 AMThe mob was just getting warmed up. I made a fairly obvious comment about the invidiousness of Sales’ position and was called an MSM apologist.

Others opined that Sales should just “do her job” which was variously interpreted as being everything from not saying anything to interrupting or … not interrupting.

When the time came, I chose to watch Twitter instead of the interview (mostly because I don’t watch tv news and current affairs, but also because I knew I could time-shift it later).

Screen Shot 2013-04-25 at 10.51.17 PMAbbott had minutes before tweeted about the interview, making it clear it was pre-recorded.

Conspiracies began to fly, principally that Abbott’s mistakes would be edited out by the ABC and/or that Sales’ questions would have been provided to Abbott before the interview. (No similar criticism was made when Sales’ recent interview with the Prime Minister was also pre-recorded.)

The Twitter meltdown was spectacular and lasted well into the evening, as well as the next day.

Having already pruned my tweetstream of most offensive tweeps I did not see the worst of it. Sales gave us a glimpse the next day.

Screen Shot 2013-04-25 at 11.51.35 PM

An interesting contribution was made by Peter Clarke over at Australians for Honest Politics. As a former broadcaster and an educator, Clarke provided a critique of Sales and suggested what she should have done during the interview. He produced a similar critique for Sales’ interview of the PM. (I look forward to future analyses of Tony Jones, Emma Alberici and Barrie Cassidy’s interviewing prowess or lack thereof.)

The critique of Sales’ Abbott interview was diminished considerably by the conspiratorial allusions that followed:

Has Sales personally or the 730 program generally lost their knack to scrutinize the man (and woman) competing for the prime ministership? If so, what veiled process has brought us to this? What has happened to Sales’ previous admirable abilities to forge and ask, in context, sharp, forensic, confronting questions on our behalf? And to deploy the right tone and weight of personality and to be flexible with those choices on the run?

Where was the clear evidence of a pre-planned strategy for this interview from Sales and her team? If they had one, it went to water early on.

In short, what is actually happening behind the scenes at 730 to leech this program of its effectiveness just when we need it most to do its fourth estate job effectively without fear or favour?

While it’s fair to ponder the extent to which the ABC might pull its punches to stay onside with an incoming government, there was little evidence of this occurring in the Abbott interview (yes I have watched it). Sales was well-prepared and took Abbott up on most of his rebuttals, even though she has toned down the interviewus interruptus style that so annoyed viewers during the previous interview with the Prime Minister.

Peter Clarke criticises Sales for not pressing Abbott on several occasions when opportunities presented themselves. But with this being a pre-recorded interview and likely edited down to 13 minutes from a longer version, it’s quite possible Sales did pursue several lines of questioning. If Abbott was ultimately able to evade these questions there would have been no point leaving his manoeuvring in the final cut, particularly with so many topics vying for air time.

Even though there was no gotcha moment similar to that which brought on Abbott’s gaffe last year, Sales did elicit some interesting and newsworthy pieces of information:

  • Abbott refused to put firm timing on business tax cuts and the paid parental leave scheme
  • He continued to move away from promising a surplus and spoke instead about a “pathway to returning to surplus”
  • He claimed the Coalition had to find much less than $70 billion in savings
  • He attempted to portray commitments being made by Gillard, which dont have to be fulfilled until after the election, as ‘booby-traps’.

Most interesting was Abbott’s concession about needing to “grow into” the role of PM, as he once grew into the role of health minister. This suggests Coalition market research is finding voters think Abbott might not be PM material.

Screen Shot 2013-04-25 at 11.52.52 PMOf course, this fascinating point was lost amongst the wailing and rending of clothes on Twitter by Labor supporters.

Meanwhile a heretofore unknown blogger [to me], Anthony Bieniack, made this illuminating observation in his post “Repeat after me: Leigh Sales is not the problem”:

There’s a lot of theories as to why to Tony Abbott is doing so well –  with varying degrees of merit – the one I personally believe is that the ALP have a particularly bad communications team, good policies are not being heard and bad news is reverberating, but I think it goes deeper than that. I think it’s us.

It’s Twitter, its Facebook, it’s slacktivism – and it’s killing us, because while us Twitter-loving commies are sitting around patting each other on the back and pretending we’re valiantly fighting a tory threat – our opponents are recruiting and growing. While we’re writing obscure blog posts about percentages of GDP and preference-sharing and telling each other how clever we are – our opponents are telling a plumber that Julia lied to us and Abbott is our saviour.

We aren’t fighting anything – we’re preaching to the choir and wasting time doing it.

We’ve become lazy, we’ve got faith in the failed logic that policy is all that matters and that Leigh Sales will eventually be our hero – she’s not our hero, she’s not our saviour and that isn’t her job – it’s ours.

Stop Tweeting, stop blogging, stop retelling the same anti-Abbott stories to people who have already made up there mind. Simplify your message and tell it to the people who don’t care much for politics. Tell your hairdresser, tell the guy next to you on the tram. Listen to people and find out why they’re not on your side and have a succinct response. Join a political party, get some flyers, spread the word and stop blaming the media.

After all, if your friends have more faith in the Herald Sun then they have in you – you have the credibility problem.

If Abbott wins it won’t be because the ABC didn’t harass him about his education policy – it will be because when people were deciding who to vote for, we were telling each other how funny we were on Twitter.

Boston news coverage – first is not best

Photo: Gawker.com
Photo: Gawker.com

Here’s my latest at AusVotes 2013…

Modern journalism is impoverished by the anachronistic need to be first.

Once upon a time, in the pre-internet days of the mechanical printing press and morning edition newspapers, there was real value in getting a story first. A scoop, leak or exclusive wasn’t just about journalistic cachet, it was about cold hard cash. Being first meant selling more newspapers than your competitors, by having a story they didn’t have until their next editions rolled off the presses.

As a result journalistic merit was, and often still is, measured by being first instead of best. Walkley awards have been handed out for scoops that resulted not from investigative journalism but journalists being strategically chosen by political players to be the recipient of leaked information.

This journalistic mind-set has not adapted to the digital age of instantaneity. While someone can still get a buzz from being the first to tweet an important piece of information, there is no monetary value that can be extracted from this primacy. [An increased Klout score resulting from 20,000 retweets doesn’t qualify.]

The redundant need to be first is mistakenly still equated with ‘winning’ and it sits at the heart of what is wrong with modern journalism. It drives journalists to publish half-baked stories and poorly-verifiedinformation. It encourages the substitution of analysis with opinion. In short it rewards shoddy journalism.

Click here to keep reading…

Twitter becomes the unlikely school of politics

twitterbird

Let’s face it: Australian politics is in a bad state. Politicians spew spin-doctored soundbites, journalists hyperbolise truth into click-fodder, and television talking heads blare contrarian rhetoric at each other’s unlistening faces.

Meanwhile, the community’s political conversation is equally impoverished: reduced in most cases to debating the appearance, flaws and proclivities of our national leaders.

It’s difficult to say whether Australians’ superficial interest in politics prompted the tabloidisation of our democratic processes, or whether the opposite occurred. Accusations of blame are regularly flung in both directions.

Regardless, the public’s general lack of political knowledge is also a factor. It can be pretty daunting to launch into a political discussion without some understanding of how our bicameral parliamentary system works, how policies are developed, what political philosophies underpin our party system, and what constitutes smart politics, sound policy or a great yarn.

In the absence of this awareness, it’s easy to get caught up in the drama or distraction of the day – be it the Prime Minster’s new glasses, the Opposition’s latest dummy spit in Question Time, or an incremental move in one of the myriad opinion polls.

But there’s a change brewing. People are asking, learning and talking about politics in a manner that’s somewhat unexpected.

Twitter has been known to offer up a range of salutary experiences to anyone brave enough to venture an opinion on politics, but not many of those experiences would be considered particularly positive or enjoyable. Twitter was created long after trolls, shills and sock-puppets came into existence, but these beasts have thrived there and it’s become their natural hunting ground.

Up until recently, it was rare for respectful and open-minded political discussion to take place on Twitter. Regardless of one’s views, there always seemed to be a political staffer or other vested interest lurking nearby ready to delegitimise any contrary views and demonise those who hold them. It was the antithesis of democracy in action, with political interests actively seeking to close down and destroy any dissenting opinions.

And yet… there’s a growing number of brave souls venturing out into the Twitter plains. They’re asking the most basic of questions, because they’re seeking the most basic of answers. In the absence of a civic education and with the news media focused only on hyperdrama, these voters are turning to social media to learn the fundamentals. They want to know things like: why can’t a Senate election be held before August 3; what is caretaker mode and when does it start; why/how are the voting systems difference for the House of Representatives and the Senate; how can Barnaby Joyce run for a seat in NSW when he’s a Senator in Queensland; will a successful no confidence motion cause an early election; what’s a margin of error and why is it important in opinion polls; and why do politicians only care what the voters in their electorates think? And so on.

Twelve months ago, newbie questions like this would have been ignored or met with derision. As I said, Twitter is not a place for the faint-hearted. But now, many such questions receive meaningful responses and can lead to broad and rich political discussions.

Quite often, the ones providing the answers are political bloggers. The willingness of bloggers to engage with their readers, answer questions, discuss criticisms and consider other perspectives distinguishes them from the vast majority of journalists and commentators in the traditional media.

Thankfully, there are at least some journalists who’ve quickly and adeptly grasped that there’s a growing number of political readers who seek a genuine connection with their writers. And those readers will go where the interactivity takes them.

It’s still early days, but the one good thing the Twitter echo-chamber could do this election year is be a conduit between those who want to know more about Australian politics and those who are willing to explain and discuss it. One way or another, either through traditional or social media, blogs or simple discussion, more Australians are going to learn how their democracy works.

Educated voters are more discerning and they’ll be more demanding. They’ll want better behaviour from their politicians, better policies from the parties, and better reportage from the media.

This could make for very interesting civil discourse over the next few years.

This post first appeared at ABC’s The Drum.

Sound and fury: can Twitter really change the world?

The people who discuss Australian politics on Twitter seem to pride themselves on their antipodean egalitarianism.

While you’d like to think this means a fair go for all, it’s more likely to be the justification for bringing anyone with an ounce of hubris down a peg or two. The more self-centred the target, the more likely they will be mocked and the greater the tendency for Twitter’s pack behaviour to take hold.

Unsurprisingly, left-wing online activism group GetUp! gets its fair share of Twitter ridicule. GetUp’s propensity to claim sole credit for any achievement on their various campaigns has led people to jokingly tweet “thanks GetUp!” for decidedly unrelated achievements such as the bus being on time or their coffee being hot.

Introspection is not one of Twitter’s strong points, skipping as it does continually between innumerable snippets of online immediacy. So it’s not surprising that Twitter’s growing resemblance to GetUp!, including its tendency to default to outrage and its inflated sense of self-importance, may not have occurred to many of those who gather there.

Like GetUp!, Twitter’s activism is based on raising the level of outrage while lowering the threshold of engagement. This minimal-effort model, requiring only the click of a “like” button or the addition of a twibbon, achieves little more than giving the supporter a warm inner glow.

Yet GetUp! proclaim the number of people who’ve signed their petitions as an indication of their influence. Similarly, some Twitter campaigners have begun to point to the number of their followers or retweets as being representative of theirs. Neither metric is a credible indication of what action, if any, a person would be prepared to take in real life to support a particular cause.

Nevertheless, Twitter is now being credited for being the principal player in a number of recent campaigns. Apparently it has not only been instrumental in locating missing individuals and mainstreaming the debate on sexism, but most recently saving a whistleblower from being publicly discredited.

But what is really achieved by people rallying for causes on Twitter? At best, new communities of interest are created and communication channels established to share information. At worst, Twitter serves as little more than a cheer squad, noisily drawing attention to the scoreboard while having minimal impact on the outcome.

And this is the nub of the issue when it comes to online campaigning. There’s a yawning disconnect between what people say they will do in support of a cause and what they actually do. Twitter has the potential to bridge that divide, but it has rarely done so.

What did Twitter actually do to find Jill Meagher? The same as it did to stop Kony: not much other than generate a lot of clicks. It has subsequently done nothing to make the streets safer at night, and some elements of Twitter have even campaigned against expansion of the CCTV system that ultimately helped to locate the missing journalist.

What did Twitter do to make Alan Jones stop being disrespectful to the Prime Minister and other women? Other than provide a rallying point for people to voice their displeasure and threaten consumer boycotts, Twitter did nothing to change Jones’ chauvinism, or discredit it in the eyes of his audience.

Admittedly, Twitter did rally to protect whistleblower Peter Fox from attempts to demolish his reputation. The speed with which relevant information was shared across Twitter helped to counter his detractors’ campaign of disinformation and spin.

But Twitter’s protection of Fox does not herald the creation of a new safe haven for whistleblowers more generally. One’s cause must align with Twitter’s in order to qualify for such protection. Neither James Ashby nor Kathy Jackson, for example, were offered similar levels of protection by the Twitter collective, undoubtedly because their allegations were politically partisan in nature.

Twitter’s burgeoning reputation for making a difference falls well short of reality.

Like GetUp!, its ability to affect real change is four-fifths self-promotion and one-fifth wishful thinking. Like GetUp!, it can attract eyeballs and generate headlines by anointing preferred causes and initiating outrage. But also like GetUp!, Twitter has shown little ability to turn digital chatter into real action.

Effective campaigns deliver votes, change minds or influence behaviour. When Twitter starts producing these types of outcomes it will be making a real difference. And that’s when we’ll be able to tweet “Thanks Twitter!” without it being the ultimate act of self-parody.

This post originally appeared at ABC’s online opinion site, The Drum.

Twitter: a sugar-hyped toddler in need of a good lie down

There are many important issues discussed in the part of Twitter that focuses on Australian politics and current affairs.

It is important that a Royal Commission has been called into institutionalised abuse of children. The conduct and outcome of the US Presidential election does have implications for Australia. The mainstream media clearly has a blind spot when it comes to Tony Abbott. And there is undoubtedly a culture of sexism pervading our society.

Unfortunately, there is also a growing culture of bullying and censorship on Twitter if one does not choose to sign up to these causes or Twitter’s latest Outrage Of The Week.

One person’s passion is another person’s passing interest. That is the nature of humanity. Thinking that something else is more important than the latest Twitter groupthink does not make one a protector of pedophiles, a misogynist, or heaven forbid, a Republican.

It could mean that some people have issues that are of more personal importance than the celebrity issues that our part of Twitter selects. Internet security might not rate highly for someone with a fatal condition or chronic pain. The misogyny debate might be esoteric to someone who is regularly subjected to domestic violence. Romney as US President might not matter to an Australian with crippling debt or an addiction.

To voice cynicism about Twitter’s latest “new shiny thing” does not diminish the thing’s actual merits. Maybe Twitter’s confected outrage and biodegradable empathy is simply galling to those with less telegenic challenges in their lives.

This does not appear to occur to tweeps who fling scorn and opprobrium at those who consciously step back from or question the latest Twitter fray. With the identification of each new cause, Twitter seems to be ratcheting up the rhetoric (perhaps in the face of desentisation or ennui), and shrilly denouncing non-participants as non-believers.

Some days it resembles nothing more than a gaggle of GetUp! toddlers, high on sugar and running in noisy circles. On such days, Twitter should be made to take a good lie down.

Was #destroythejoint the pinnacle of online campaigning?

Here’s my latest piece for the King’s Tribune…

I saw a forlorn tweet the other day, saying “we found Jill Meagher, now let’s find …..” using the name of another missing person.

Occasional retweets of the plea bobbed like flotsam in my timeline for a while, then became lost in a torrent of condemnation over Alan Jones’ appalling comments about the Prime Minister’s father.

Like many others that weekend, I joined the campaign to make Jones feel the material consequences of his derogatory remarks. I was heartened to see so many people rouse themselves above the level of petition-whore slacktivist and actively contact 2GB advertisers by phone, email, Twitter and Facebook. It was a striking example of genuine People Power, a sharp-edged reminder that — when provoked — public sentiment can transform from slumbering shaggy dog to noble protector or slavering jag-toothed beast in the click of a news cycle.

At the same time, I felt ashamed that we weren’t rallying for the person who asked Twitter to help locate just one more of the 35,000 people reported missing in Australia every year: just one of the loved ones reported missing every 15 minutes.

Click here to read more…

Post script: Hard won lessons from ‘the Alan Jones’ incident