Comment is optional, but responsibility is not

In the few days since I started suggesting that Twitter could provide a good starting point to improve online behaviour, I’ve got some good responses. I’ve been asked this morning why I don’t “allow” people to comment here on my opinion, which is a fair point.

What I like about Twitter is that it is open. If you comment below this post you are only reaching people who read this post, then make the decision to read your comment. I have to question why you made the comment – was it for me, or for everyone?

If you have something to ask me, then I appreciate you taking the time to respond to something I’ve said. But my Twitter username is right there. I’m open to debate. I don’t believe that you could argue that commenting below my article is a better debate than getting me via Twitter.

If you have something you want to say in order to prompt others to think, or respond, or question what I am saying, then welcome to the debate. I am interested, and I know a lot of other people are too. Twitter, again, makes a far more suitable forum for debate than summing up what you think in a pithy (if impressive) way below the line.

And if space is your issue, then may I suggest Google can help. If you have something to say, I will listen, not least because you read around 1000 of my words in order to respond to my argument. You deserve my respect of your act of response, even if I feel your response is incorrect or inarticulate.

And if you don’t want to be on Twitter, if you aren’t happy about signing up for yet another service which may (or, heck, may not) want to use your details for profit, then that is your choice. I cannot make you join Twitter. Just as it is my choice to opt out of comments here and ensure the debate takes place in a live, relevant environment.

But because there has been such interesting and varied response, I thought I’d clarify some issues by using the comments I’ve received. I’ve included their usernames to credit them with their contributions, and I hope they will respond further:

@JKeverne Research what happened on Twitter after the Penny Arcade Dickwolves comic and tell me that wasn’t as bad as any comment thread.

Ouch. I’d never heard of this before, but it does prove one thing – that I might be a little idealistic, hoping that people would self-edit on Twitter because it was linked to their identity. There are plenty of anonymous unaccounts here, teamrape an especially ugly one.

But then there are plenty of comments, full stop. The issue of rape is a horrific one, but though this was a conflict it did prompt debate. And, crucially, I can’t see one specific person who was threatened with violent rape in the exchange. But a good pointer.

@Valancy What about the Facebook integration comment system? People are less likely to be assholes when their real names are attached.

This was my point, but having seen someone post a link to an article on their Facebook page which was followed by their female friends branding the writer a lesbian, it’s a good reminder that sometimes these issues go deeper than anonymity being an enabling mask.

@abalanophage That assumes 1) people want to use Twitter and 2) Twitter’s not full of knobs (not seen much of that community spirit myself).

As above, and in my experience in the #stampoutmisogyny chatter, it’s clear people still post to Twitter things that can offend, or are actually geared specifically to offend. Again, these are issues deeper than mere online accountability can solve.

Clearly using Facebook or Twitter won’t stop all hate speech or ad hominem attacks, but it surely would go some way to reducing the ugliness online, and in turn help to prevent this sort of casual abuse being so normalised and accepted.

@holdenweb Seems to me like you are trying to cure a headache by decapitation.

I agree it’s radical – after all, comments have been an accepted form of expression online for years now. I’m not suggesting an internet-wide enforced crackdown on what people see as an opportunity for free speech. But places where opinions are expressed and open to rebuttal might prefer to opt in to a system which aims to raise accountability.

This poster also suggested that censoring misogyny simply sends it underground. I haven’t seen much of this – no matter how many moderators remove however many comments defined as such, they keep coming. And I’d argue that underground is a good starting point to drive these inane commenters. It might stop casual misogyny being so normalised.

@conniptions The answer is not an end to comments. But best practice moderation could go a long way. See
@conniptions [Metafilter] is a very good example of best practice. Spreading that best practice is a very practical response.

All good. All positive. And, yes, all practical. But I am not suggesting that we do one thing and only that thing. I’m not suggesting that by linking your comments to your Twitter identity that everything will be solved overnight. We can pursue as many solutions as there are people to conceive and support them.

My biggest problem with this response, and several others, is that it takes the position of someone providing a competing idea as the reason not to do anything – ie, there are lots of solutions, and we must decide on which is best, and we cannot do anything until that is decided. This is balls. I have my idea, and I agree with yours. Let’s both get busy, yes?

@Tzcttwit you’re advocating censorship, corporate oversight of speech. Can’t you see slippery slope? I’m flabbergasted by such suggestions.

I understand that the default position is that Twitter is owned by someone, who makes money out of it, which makes it a corporate entity, and that you might be unwilling to give that entity permission to effectively ‘own’ the field of debate. But that’s not what I see.

I’m not so naive that I don’t believe Twitter is aware and protective of its reputation. But what I do believe is that, in its current state, the light touch approach Twitter has taken suggests it isn’t too interested in censoring what you want to say.

But what it can do is hold you to what you say. The slippery slope here might be different, and wholly more human, in that Twitter might, one day, be forced to provide details by an authority who wishes to use the record of what you said in order to punish you. This is dangerous, and I accept that it could prevent all the wonderful things I said about Twitter.

So, look. Perhaps Twitter isn’t the perfect tool for the job, for ever. But as it is now, I still believe that even a marginal increase in accountability or consequence could positively influence the sort of comments left on, for instance, contentious articles.

@Lotsandlotsandlotsofpeople(principallymale) You can disregard comments, you don’t have to read what is written, it’s your choice to read whatever is online

It is choice. But actually what my idea doesn’t even begin to touch, can’t actually influence, is the sheer amount of abusive, sexually violent messages that women writers (do any men receive this kind of missive?) are sent, either by email or post that are far more difficult to ignore than an online comment.

Yes, it is my choice to read something which upsets me. No one is forcing me to read these things. I do so because I believe that casual hatefulness should not be allowed to stand uncontested, I choose to take offence at the disregard another person has for the consequences of their actions. Because it is your choice to write something upsetting.

And if I am prepared to shoulder the consequences (being upset, wanting to know why, a need to challenge) than you must accept the consequences of your action (ie, being told people are upset, being asked why you would write such a thing, being challenged on your views and opinions).

Having your comment inextricably linked to, as a suggestion, your Twitter account means that everything you say is something people can come back to you on, directly. And if you cannot handle that, then I suggest you don’t say anything at all.

About Ben Catley-Richardson

Writer, reader, husband. Father!
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