No-one is quite sure how and when it happened but Twitter, once a shiny, new, democratic tool – a way to share all sorts of useful and useless information – has become a liability.
Now all the things we loved about it are all things which are wrong with it. And for all its speed and ease, shallow cheerfulness and over-familiarity, it has grown into something slippery and dangerous.
It’s partly our fault. Some of us are too keen to share – snaps of our dinner, the dog, the dinner in the dog, babies, feelings, our innermost thoughts on everything and everyone. They are all there, online.
And that’s the thing about the internet – it’s given everyone a voice and so everyone has something to say. That’s not a bad thing, not a bad thing at all, but perhaps it’s just too much information. We’re all too “out there” and that, inevitably, makes us vulnerable.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that Twitter, as it has grown in size and influence, has morphed into a creature possessed of a sharp beak and claws. Now it’s a magnet for so-called trolls. They have turned it into a weapon. Not a very sophisticated weapon, but one capable of hammering home abusive and demeaning messages all the same.
No-one need rant at the TV anymore, or pen letters in green ink; not when they can tell someone exactly what they think in 140 characters or less and all at the press of a button, because Twitter has given free rein to the lazy, the angry and the stupid.
If that sounds harsh, then some of the abusive tweets highlighted in the media over the last couple of days more than make the point. The journalist Caroline Criado-Perez and the MP Stella Creasy were forced to go to the police after receiving rape and death threats via Twitter. Their crime? Running a successful campaign to have a woman featured on a UK banknote. That alone was enough to attract the attention of the angry young men – for it is mainly men – who get a kick out of abusing women from the safety of their laptops.
Both women are fighting back, not only at the trolls, but at Twitter. Now the website has been cornered into taking some responsibility for the mess it helped create, promising to roll out a “report” button after it was accused of not taking the threats seriously enough. Now more women – journalists who’ve written about these cyber cranks – have received tweets threatening to blow up their homes.
Thankfully, the week also threw up an unmasking, which revealed the truly pathetic nature of the troll. TV historian Professor Mary Beard, who is no stranger to online invective, managed to out-fox one such individual by threatening to send a copy of his highly offensive tweet to his mother. Oliver Rawlings, a 20-year-old student, was named, shamed and forced to apologise.
It would be easy to lay the blame for this rising tide of electronic abuse firmly at the door of technology, but it’s more than that.
It’s society’s problem now and one that we all had a hand in creating. And a whole generation – generation “selfie” – the same one that Mary Beard’s tormentor belongs to, has grown up believing it can comment about anything and anyone online. So, nothing is private. Everything is shared. We did that, not the internet. Now all the outpouring has created a flood and it seems no-one knows how to stop it.
Yet, if Twitter has provided a platform for the cruel side of human nature, then death, the last taboo, has just lately revealed a very different side of the micro-blogging site. For the last fortnight, US broadcaster Scott Simon has been tweeting from his dying mother’s hospital bedside. More than a million people have been following his updates. They’re the opposite of careless, thoughtless comment. They’re a reminder of the power of Twitter, and perhaps the good it can do. Read them, but I warn you, you may well weep. These tweets are real. They may even restore your faith in our tarnished electronic world.
Juliet Dunlop is on Twitter: @julietdunlop