(…or Why I Left The Twitter Trenches)
I was warned by colleagues and friends not to do it.
“You’ll definitely regret it”.
“I know what you’re like — you’ll get drawn into far too many pointless arguments.”
“Where are you going to find the time?”
In the end, I lasted a little less than 18 months. I deactivated my Twitter account last Sunday.
And breathed a huge sigh of relief.
No more logging on to find fifty or sixty notifications, scrolling down the list and finding my faith in humanity chipped away just that little bit more.
And, in particular, no more of the spinelessness and hypocrisy of that particular subset of Twitter users who spend their time cravenly slagging off others from behind cosy anonymous cover. (More on this below – it’s a theme about which I’m just a little…obsessive).
I’ve received a number of e-mails asking why I deactivated my account. Some have thought, quite reasonably, that I left Twitter because I’d been “driven off” by Louise Mensch following a number of ‘debates’, i.e. slanging matches, on the subject of the Tim Hunt furore (and related themes).
No, I’ve not been Mensch-ed. Indeed, while I may vehemently disagree with the vast majority of what Mensch writes and deplore her vacuous vitriol, in one way (and one way only) I recognise a kindred spirit in her. She is obsessive. Even those who, unlike me, are on the right-of-centre of the political spectrum and could thus be considered to be Mensch’s allies have pointed this out: she spends an inordinate amount of time on Twitter, tweeting at a phenomenal rate and arguing seemingly continuously. (Of course, it’s rather easy to maintain a high tweet bandwidth if your wit and insightfulness too often fail to rise above the level of “LOL!!! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!” but, then, Mensch is a columnist for The Sun — lowest-common-denominator bile and boilerplate are her newspaper’s stock-in-trade. It’s perhaps unfair to expect incisive insights/pithy Twittery from Mensch when her day job doesn’t require it.)
Nonetheless, Mensch’s tenacity and obsessiveness resonate with me; I am not the sharpest tack in the box but I can be single-minded, pig-headed, and, yes, obsessive. Those are qualities which, while not always the most laudable or attractive, are very helpful in science; Edison’s 99% perspiration maxim is especially apposite for scientific research. (On a slightly tangential point, I should note that, in my opinion, Mensch is invested heavily in the Tim Hunt furore (and other debates/arguments/slanging matches) because she genuinely cares about these issues. I don’t agree with her position but I think she’s genuine in her vitriol. This is not to say that there isn’t some aspect of self-promotion in her proclivity for Twitter but it seems to me that she’s in a different category to, for example, the self-aggrandising, unprincipled, hate-for-hire, human detritus that is Milo Yiannopoulos.)
In contexts other than scientific research, however, Mensch’s level of obsessiveness can, at best, be rather unseemly and a massive waste of time, and downright unhealthy at worst. What does anyone gain from the type of playground name-calling that is the signature characteristic of so many exchanges on Twitter? And I don’t mean just the spats with Mensch (although I’d imagine these account for a non-negligible percentage of the total); too often when the Left and the Right collide, the level of debate on Twitter descends to the gutter in the space of a remarkably small number of characters. Of course, the Left and Right — and warring internal factions within both the Left and the Right [Note that the recent appalling sexism of some affiliated with a particular faction of the Left is one area where I do agree with Mensch] — vociferously disagree with each other in so many other fora (both real-world and online). But the 140 character/rapid response format of Twitter is particularly ill-suited to fostering any type of intelligent, thoughtful, or simply courteous debate.
I should stress at this point that I am certainly not suggesting for one femtosecond that I am any type of paragon of virtue in this context. I have certainly descended to Mensch’s level on a number of occasions (and one example is mentioned below). But that’s the point — being dragged down to that level is one damn good reason to quit Twitter.
There were two key catalysts, however, for my decision to leave Twitter. The first of these was an exchange with a Twitter user with the wonderfully witty and inventive handle of @SlagOffTwits. @SlagOffTwits is one of that rather well-populated tribe of Twitter users which claims to be protecting freedom of speech and the opportunity to offend whomever and whenever they like. But they, errmm, “slag off twits” behind anonymous cover — an utterly dishonest, totally spineless, and amusingly hypocritical way to behave.
As I told @SlagOffTwits (and have repeatedly told others who similarly lack the honesty and basic decency to put their name to their slurs), I’m more than comfortable with being slagged off online. Indeed, I’m very used to it. I’d prefer if my points were met with coherent and thoughtful arguments, but if you can’t quite rise to that challenge I’m more than happy to listen to your slurs.
But here’s the rub. Slag me and others off openly and honestly. Have the backbone and integrity to put your name to your slurs. Otherwise you’re not even the playground bully — you’re the bully’s weaselly friend who cowers in the background.
So I explained this all to @SlagOffTwits and their responses followed the same tediously evasive and inconsistent pattern I’ve encountered so many times before…
[Edit 12:43 09/12/2015. I guess I should point out that in the following I am paraphrasing @SlagOffTwit’s and others’ arguments — they are not direct quotes. ]
“You’re not engaging with the arguments — you’re using your criticism of anonymity to scupper debate”.
No, that’s demonstrably incorrect. I have engaged with each and every one of your points. And each and every one of the points raised by others with whom I disagree. I don’t block or mute for precisely this reason. It’s entirely dishonest of you to argue otherwise. I can engage with each of your arguments and at the same time point out how spineless and dishonest it is to slag off others from behind anonymous cover.
“I have a perfectly good reason to be anonymous”.
Which is? Are you writing from a location where you’re under an oppressive regime? Are you likely to face the death penalty for what you write? If not, then explain just why it’s OK for you to “slag off twits” from behind anonymous cover. And, no, the fact that you’re frightened of how your place of employment might look on your views and/or your behaviour online is not a justifiable reason. That’s pure cowardice. Stand behind your views. (I may disagree vehemently with Mensch but at least she’s willing to keep her head above the parapet. (A very long way above the parapet…))
Strangely enough, I’ve not had any type of credible answer — from any of those who hide behind anon cover while screaming “freedom of speech…we’ll offend who the f**k we like…don’t be so sensitive” — to my question asking why their anonymity is necessary. They seem to get very defensive, touchy and, um, sensitive when I raise the matter.
“Your Twitter account isn’t verified. You could be anyone. Hypocritical for you to focus on my anonymity when your account isn’t verified”
It is very difficult to get a Twitter account verified if you are not a public figure. The likelihood of my getting a verified account is therefore slim to none (as no doubt you know). But that doesn’t mean that I can’t verify my identity. Here’s a link to a short video where I verify that this is indeed my account.
“But your Twitter account isn’t verified”.
I sent you a link to a video where I verified that it was my account and that my affiliation is the University of Nottingham. Moreover, here’s my University of Nottingham phone number. You can check online that this number is indeed the office phone number for Philip Moriarty. Give me a call.
“But your Twitter account isn’t verified”.
OK, this is getting tedious now — you’re dishonestly ignoring the responses I’ve given. As I’ve said, I can just as easily verify it via my University of Nottingham affiliation. Just phone the number.
[@SlagOffTwits departs from the usual script…].
“I’m now going to set up a false Twitter account in your name to show you how easy it is to have an unverified account. And I’ll tweet from it”.
I know full well just how easy it is to set up an unverified account. Please don’t insult my intelligence. In any case, I’ve told you how I can verify this account. It’s entirely dishonest and reprehensible of you to set up a false account in my name simply to evade my points about your cowardly use of anonymity. The fact that it’s very easy to set up any number of false accounts/sockpuppets and to steal an identity does not make it ethically defensible to do so! In fact, that you would stoop this low highlights your inability to defend your anonymity using credible arguments. It significantly strengthens my point that those who slag off others from behind anonymous cover are fundamentally dishonest and cowardly.
[Around about this point I accused @SlagOffTwits of being one of Mensch’s acolytes. That was unfair both to Mensch and @SlagOffTwits and I retracted the statement and apologised to Mensch. As I said, I’m no paragon of virtue when it comes to Twitter spats].
I have participated in quite a few online debates over the years. One of the first, on the physics and possibilities of advanced nanotechnology, was over a decade ago and stretched to over 50 pages of discussion (although, technically, it was via e-mail, followed by posting of the documents online). This got rather heated in the later stages but I implicitly trusted my opponent, Chris Phoenix, to debate in good faith; I was entirely confident that he and I were of the same mind when it came to basic values like the importance of honesty and intellectual integrity in debate. The language was robust, sure, but Chris and I were never dishonest with each other. And, in the end, that debate with Chris — despite us being very much on opposite sides of the fence — was exceptionally productive in that it led to a £1.7M grant on the fundamental issues underpinning computer-controlled mechanochemistry.
Similarly, in a variety of other debates, I have implicitly trusted those with whom I’m debating to argue their points honestly and not resort to grubby dishonest tricks like sockpuppetry, identity theft, or setting up false accounts, despite our sometimes very strong differences in opinion. And generally, I find that my values align with those of my opponents. But not when it comes to @SlagOffTwits and their tribe. There is a fundamental clash of values with regard to the central importance of honesty, intellectual integrity, and basic decency in debate. It is a monumental waste of my time to debate with someone who sees nothing wrong in dishonestly setting up a false account in order to evade questions about…their dishonesty.
Yes, there are many great things about Twitter, as this compelling post from Paul Coxon points out. And yes, I could in principle just block @SlagOffTwits and their ilk. But unlike many of those who claim to be all for free speech, I don’t block or censor. I value free debate. (Fascinatingly, Louise Mensch is all for freedom of speech…as long as she’s not being criticised. The…let’s be charitable and just say “cognitive dissonance” here is intriguing). Moreover, in my experience there any very many on Twitter who share @SlagOffTwits’ lack of honesty and integrity in debate; I know that at some point they’ll end up in my timeline and I’ll get drawn into another pointless spat with them because their dishonesty winds me up so very much.
So that’s one reason why I left Twitter. But the much more important reason is the following…
While I was involved in that spat with @SlagOffTwits discussed above I overheard the following exchange between my six year old son, Fiachra, and his big sister, Niamh:
Fiachra (whispered): “Niamh, why does daddy look so grumpy when he’s typing on his laptop? Does he not like working on his laptop?”
Niamh: “Oh, he’s on Twitter again. He’s always grumpy when he’s on Twitter.”
(added 11/12/2015. 19:00)
Following an exchange in the comments thread below, @SlagOffTwits tweeted the following. Note that nowhere in the post above, nowhere in the comments, or nowhere online have I suggested that @SlagOffTwits “bullied me off” Twitter. I certainly mention bullying in one of the comments below but there has been no accusation that @SlagOffTwits “bullied me off” Twitter. It’s precisely this type of dishonesty that makes engaging with @SlagOffTwits and his/her ilk so infuriating.
EDIT (16/12/2015) Coda to the coda. Because the Tweet above is a direct link to the Twitter account, rather than a screenshot, I’ve just noticed that @SlagOffTwits has recently changed his Twitter profile picture from a cartoon to what appears to be his actual photo. Kudos to him for doing this. We need more of that type of honesty on the web.