In the Independent, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown writes on the delights that post-colonials bring to the English language, and laments the decline of language and civility online:
The future looks bright then, until you notice those who use new technology without due care. Some crazed demons on Twitter believe anything goes. Written words matter and hold meanings beyond that narcissistic urge to send off instant thoughts. The Tory councillor who sent out a vile and scary message about me says it was a joke. After some thought I decided I will not press charges. My objections have been made and there is no need for more. Yet having read many blogs and tweets that followed the incident, I do wonder whether our manners and morals will survive and if English itself, the best thing about us, is now seriously endangered.
She joins Dame Helen Mirren in lamenting the decline in standards brought about by the new technologies. Andrew Marr recently made similar comments about ‘ranting’ bloggers.
I fear that such comments will become a regular punctuation in our discourse from now on. Such attitudes from the dead-tree columnists come about by a failure to understand that the new technologies like Twitter and teh blogs are not changing culture, but revealing it. Clay Shirky, in his bestseller Here Comes Everybody, likens the net to a public mall. Its a public space, but that doesn’t mean every conversation is directed at you. In a shopping centre, if you were to eavesdrop on a chat between a group of teenagers, then make comments about their awful slag, you would be regarded as, at best, a curmudgeonly pedant; or at worst, a dodgy weirdo worthy of a report to the mall security guards. Likewise with blogs and twitter, not every conversation in the public domain is intended to be a public pronouncement in the way Alibhai-Brown, Mirren and Marr traditionally understand it.
Of course, one could argue the opposite. Tweeting and blogging about a celebrity might also be likened to taking your conversation from the pub after last orders, and continuing it loudly outside the door of the house of the person you are talking about. There, the awkwardness, the social autism, is on the part of the speaker, not the listener. If (say) Yasmion Alibhai-Brown has to step over noisy yobs outside her gate, then she may well choose to call the police. Thankfully, to take the analogy to its conclusion, she has told the yobs (in this case a conservative Councillor from Birmingham) to “stop being so rude, and to bugger off”… which seems the most healthy course of action to me. Her disgust is registered without anyone’s free speech being censored. Dave Osler’s take on the case is interesting and Paul Sinha’s speaks my own mind perfectly:
If you believe that Paul Chambers is a victim of a miscarriage of justice … then you should also believe that the police have no role to play in the strange case of Alibhai Brown vs Compton.
Back to those who feel that the Internet is generally unpleasant: We can point out thousands of counter-examples! Paul Staines, and his phalanx of Tourettes-suffering anonymous commenters, get all the attention, because the blog is the online equivalent of a tabloid, intent on winning readers in the rudest and crudest way possible. However, for every Guido Fawkes there are hundreds of more thoughful bloggers, writing for pleasure and to seek out genuine and meaningful connections online. How to pick just one? Well, as it happens, I have Federay Holmes’ blog open on my browser (because she just won a PEN competition). She writes thoughful posts about politics, literature and family life, and seems to have as much sincerity as Fawkes has cynicism.
Alternatively, read the fantastic story of How Justin Long Affably and Reasonably Ended and Internet Flame War.
Finally, I might point to the huge continent of Internet dialogue that is Facebook. As far as I can tell, the discourse on that site is entirely made up of expressions of friendship, congratulatory messagages (concerning love and friendship) and photographs of events that are themselves marking friendship, love and achievement. It can be saccharine at times, but its entire structure pretty much enforces civility and niceness. There are ways to signify ‘Friends’ and ‘Like’, but no means to do the opposite.