Twitter's tweeps, twits and all

14 May 2010

Between Catherine Deveny, Miranda Devine, and now Helen Razer, Twitter has suddenly become the bete noire of the Internet. Judging from the feigned shock from the public, the horror and outrage from the tabloid set, and the deleted tweets in nearly everyone's timeline, I'd suggest people are taking things a bit too seriously - and a bit too far.

Twitter has always had a certain inane quality. Like a frighteningly sophisticated cocktail party filled to the brim with neurotics, everyone struggles to hide themselves by bringing forth their inner Dorothy Parker, searching for that perfectly pithy bon mot, one that will be appreciated and retweeted. That is Twitter's internal monologe. It's not meant to go wide, not really meant to live beyond the context of the moment of its utterance, and certainly doesn't mean anything. It's not mean, it's not bullying (mostly), and it's not to be taken seriously. People say outrageous things every single minute - it's one of the things we're very good at. To take any one of these things and promote it as the Death of Civilised Culture is, well, ridiculous.

Do you reckon this is going to slow down, or even stop, if all of the Helen Razers of the world unplug from Twitter? I'm afraid not. We are, each in our own special ways, getting more and more into one another's faces, thrusting our lips next to one another's ears. The social media amplifier that is Twitter means that even our quietest whispers now come across as screams. There is no silence, there is no privacy, and there is no longer room for outrage.

Despite its frivolity, its easy way with an insult, its insouciance, Twitter is incredibly useful. It allows us to keep a finger on the global pulse - whether that might be a rally in Tehran or an earthquake in Haiti, or an election in the UK. It connects us directly to events as they happen, without any filters or spinmeisters or PR. Maybe that's what's so shocking: we've been anaesthetised by our modern, shiny, carefully managed culture, so ensorcelled we've forgotten that the real world beyond our noses is noisy, smelly, and often (to steal Tony Abbott's favourite phrase) 'very confronting'.

That's all to the good. We need to be confronted. We need to be reminded that nothing is neat, that people do not uniformly share any point of view. We need to remember that disagreement is not the end of the world, merely the start of a healthy discussion. Above all, we need to have the real meaning of tolerance thrust into our faces, so that it can't be ignored. Some of the archons of multiculturalism will tell you that tolerance is easy. It is not. It may be the hardest thing we ever do as a species - learn to live with something that we fundamentally disagree with. But we won't make it to the other side of the 21st century unless we are willing to give tolerance a real go. The world outside has burst through the gates. We're not alone here, nor are we all of one mind. We have to make our peace with that, and in a hurry, lest we all drown together in a sea of amplified and manufactured rage.

Forgive Catherine for her comments about Bindi. Forget that Miranda made some inappropriate suggestions about rodents and body canals. Invite Helen back into the deep end of the swimming pool. Sure, you can drown out here - but most likely you'll only catch a lungful of water. There's plenty of other people to keep an eye on you. They might make fun of you as you splutter, but they'll also swim to the rescue if you seem in real trouble. And that's the point. Twitter is all of us, at our best and at our worst. You can't just look away. This is who we are.

Mark Pesce is one of the early pioneers in Virtual Reality and works as a writer, researcher and teacher. He is currently an Honorary Associate of the Digital Cultures Program at the University of Sydney, and is a judge on ABC's The New Inventors.

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