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Twitter’s reality check is in the post

Twitter is not a safe harbour from the rules of society. Chances are, what happens in the real world will happen on Twitter, too. Can we avoid this? No, absolutely not. And we shouldn’t even try, either. Here’s why…

Twitter logoTwitter is not a safe harbour from the rules of society. Chances are, what happens in the real world will happen on Twitter, too. Can we avoid this? No, absolutely not. And we shouldn’t even try, either. Here’s why…

You see, we seem to have this mentality of re-inventing the social wheel each & every time we create a different way of interacting with each other. Sure, there needs to be some ground rules, but that’s often just a compensatory thing, to make the technology more usable. But do we really need to speak in terms of specific etiquette, or Netiquette for Twitter et al?

If you ask me, probably not.

It’s strange for me to hear people talking about Twitter being on the verge of going “mainstream” when I’ve been using Twitter for almost two years. For me and for those in my social circle, as well as my industry, Twitter went mainstream way back in 2006, where most of the customs we use now were formed.

But if we’re talking about having Twitter become as ubiquitous as the telephone (which will never happen), then any ideas people have about preserving Twitter Netiquette, well, they can forget about that kind of thing right now.

For every one person who wants some way of controlling a system, there’s probably tens of thousands who either couldn’t give a shit, or would wish for and profit from the opposite.


Using the telephone as an example, apart from the actual physical use of a telephone, how long do you think the telephone would have lasted if people had insisted on certain rules of etiquette, in addition to the basics of salutations and being polite? So why should Twitter be an exception?

Yes, there are some shorthand niceties, but again, that’s simply a “compensatory thing, to make the technology more usable”, since Twitter only allows for 140 characters, the same rules apply here as with text messaging on a mobile phone.

If we choose to erect irregular and unusual social rules as barriers to protect against and fend off the offensive few, we run the real risk of alienating all.

When we think of etiquette — or Twitterquette, if you’re of that persuasion — we think of politics and then, inevitably, rules.

Places like Twitter are socially self-organizing, in that if there’s someone who’s offending one person with an endless stream of unsolicited offers, then there’s a greater than average chance they’re pissing everyone else off, too. At which point, said annoying follower becomes the subject of a mass un-follow.

In a strange and ironic twist, I found myself writing a few rules of engagement for Twitter:

“The question itself might be a little misleading if you’re new to Twitter. OK, when you follow someone — or at least when I do — I don’t expect those people to automatically follow me back.”

Thankfully, there are others like me, who choose to make clear their Twitter rules, with a business slant, with Nikki Pilkington being a notable example.

It’s worth pointing out that neither Nikki or myself are mandating some kind of Twitter policy. These are simply our own house rules, in the same way that I previously outlined my own three rules of social media voting and reviewing.

To some, their own interpretation of Twitter means my views are the very antithesis of their own. To some, reciprocation is a mandatory requirement, one to be enforced without thought, question or further investigation.

That’s fine if you’re playing the numbers game and you’re just trying to get the most followers. But if you’re trying to create a social network of like-minded people, then I’d advise that you place quality firmly ahead of quantity, or you’re inviting trouble.

I’m not going to list all of the tricks, traps and crap tactics used on Twitter, because they’re mostly just a re-working of those we see in real life; things that no amount of etiquette can prevent nor limit.

Lies, dirty tricks and fallen legal eagles — the dark side of Twitter

However, speaking of numbers games, one of the more common tricks is to follow someone of perceived influence and standing in their social network, have them follow you back and then un-follow them almost straight afterwards. Why do this? Because if you do this and it works out for you, when people look at your profile, they’ll see that more people are following you than you are following back. That makes you look important and influential, right?

Maybe to those who’re not using a tool that informs you of those that have un-followed you, but I suspect those people are in the minority, rather than the majority.

Then there’s the really ugly side of Twitter, where the real world bites in so many ways. Back in June 2007, Ariel Waldman found herself the target of abuse and harassment on Twitter:

“In June 2007, I unfortunately found myself on the receiving end of multiple accounts of harassment from a user on Twitter. When the user started using my full name in their harassing tweets, I reported the harassment as a form of cyberbullying to Twitter’s community manager…”

Running with the numbers theme again, I’d say that’s 1-0 to reality. However, to add insult to injury, Twitter refused to act. Their excuse?

“Apologies for the delay here. We’ve reviewed the matter and decided it’s not in our best interest to get involved. We’ve tasked our lawyers with a full review and update of our TOS.”

They’re scared of litigation. 2-0 to reality.

I don’t see this as a case of new cyber crimes running around the slow heals of the law, I just think Twitter are showing just how truly spineless they are, which essentially broadcasts to every weirdo out there that they’re free to do whatever the hell they like, to whoever the hell they like.

More recently, Twitter was the unhappy subject of a “phishing” scam, with yours truly getting his very own “Hey, check out this [insert fake URL here]” direct message from a follower who’d had their profile compromised. You’ll be glad to know I didn’t fall for the aforementioned scam.

Thankfully, such incidents are either common and harmless, or harmful but very rare.

Irrespective of our best intentions for making the web a better place than the real world we live in, we are no more and certainly no less able to enforce etiquette on Twitter than we are in real life…

Why not follow me on Twitter?

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By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

1 reply on “Twitter’s reality check is in the post”

Funny I should see this post today, as I was just thinking about writing some twittequette rules.

#1 was to be, please don’t wish me “Goooooood morning Twitternam”. If a tweep is in the US, and they only just got up, chances are I’ve been working hard for several hours today already, if they’re some way east of the Greenwich meridian then the likelihood is that I’m not myself yet awake, or haven’t even gone to be, so it’s pointless either way 😉

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