“@” attacks

Posted: 13 May 2012 in internet, life, don't talk to me about life, personal, world, writing
Tags: , , ,

It’s been a while since I’ve been personally attacked for something I’ve written. No, I’ve not missed it, so please, don’t feel obliged to do so in response to this piece.

But if you do, in the comments box below, I can’t really say I haven’t asked for it here, can I?

Criticism of creative works, whether they are writings, cartoons, comedy, music, or any creative endeavour, comes with the package. If you’re not prepared to be criticised for your opinions and works, then don’t offer them to the world. There will always be those who agree with what you’ve created (no matter how good or bad the work) and always be those who dislike “it”, whatever “it” is.

I’ve written previously about the personal and misogynistic attacks Laurie Penny has faced over some of her pieces, and I’ve been sickened at those and other attacks at friends whose sole offence seems to be to provoke a reaction of “we don’t like you.”

However, notwithstanding my earlier comment that all creators invite criticism (good and bad) of their works, there’s a current unpleasant practice on Twitter that I think is worthy of comment.

Now if you write a column, or a blog, there is usually an opportunity at the venue of publication to comment upon that piece of writing. The very fact that opportunity exists invites people to do so. And, while the advice of “never read the comments” is always given, it’s a fact that precious few creators have the ability and willpower not to at least glance at them.

“Never read the comments” is perhaps the best advice for the Internet, apart from Wil Wheaton’s advice of “Don’t be a dick.” Sadly, it’s equally ignored by many.

But, if I can use an analogy, many people complain about a television programme offending them. The usual response is “don’t watch it then”, and it’s a fair response at that. Despite the oft-quoted counter of “I didn’t ask for this to be in my living room’, I’m sorry, but you did precisely that, by selecting that television programme to watch.

In the same way, if you go looking for criticism of your work, in some (but not all) ways, you forfeit the moral right to complain at what’s been written about the work. You don’t, however, ever forfeit the right to complain about personal attacks.

However – back to the tv example for a moment – so far, at least, my television has never switched channel mid-way through an episode of House MD to show, say, Keith Olbermann attacking me in full “rampaging bull elephant on heat” mode.

Neither, to take another example, has my internet browser suddenly alerted me with a pop up window showing me details of an Internet commenter ripping me, or something I’ve written, apart.

And then we have Twitter. Twitter is almost unique (Facebook has tags, but they’re somewhat different) in that anyone on Twitter, anyone at all, can attach an ‘@’ to your Twitter ID in a tweet and it will be brought to your attention. You can’t avoid it. It’s the way Twitter works.

So, let’s say Joe Oik from Cityville, Nebraska doesn’t like something I’ve written.

Fair enough, it happens.

He tweets the following:

Just read the latest column by Lee Barnett. God, the guy’s a dick. He should give up foisting this crap on the world. He’s fucking useless.

Fair enough, it’s unpleasant, and I would – I’d imagine – disagree with the broad sentiments of his views. And yes, if I or friends saw it, I or they might respond. We’d be idiots to, but hey, we’re entitled to be idiots just as much as anyone else online.

But I am, and they are, unlikely to see the tweet unless I or they undertake a vanity search on Twitter, or on Google, since Google have started showing tweets in their search results.

Contrast that with the following tweet:

Just read the latest column by @budgie. God, the guy’s a dick. He should give up foisting this crap on the world. He’s fucking useless.

Now, I’m going to see that tweet. I’m definitely going to see that tweet.

It’s going to be notified to me next time I go on Twitter. Depending upon how I access Twitter, I might even get a little icon lighting up highlighting the fact that someone has mentioned me. And, since I’m like everyone else, I’m kind of curious when someone mentions me.

So I’ll read the tweet.

Make no mistake, this doesn’t fall within “don’t read the comments.” This is the actual “I didn’t want this in my living room” as opposed to the falsity of that being applied to television.

Of course I’m going to read it. Because that was what was intended by the tweeter when he or she wrote it.

I was trying to think of any “innocent” reasons for including someone’s Twitter name, suitably @’d, in a nasty, criticising, tweet, and, with a couple of friends, I think I’ve identified two:

(1) the tweeter is new to Twitter, and doesn’t realise that every ‘@’ is notified to the subject.
(2) the tweeter is a fucking idiot.

(1) is possible. It is. People new to any form of communication make errors in etiquette, format, etc. Just think of how many people over the years have had to be told that writing in capitals denotes shouting. Or just who has has to be informed that “LOL” doesn’t mean “Lots of Love”.

So, (1) is possible. But I think it’s difficult to argue ignorance or naïveté when you’ve got 500+ tweets under your belt.

And (2) is more than possible. Paraphrasing the words of an old Labour MP when accused of being a stupid cunt, there are lot of stupid cunts around and they deserve some representation. And there are even more online.

But I’d venture to suggest that of all the offending tweets with which this piece is concerned, i.e. nasty tweets with an ‘@’ in them, maybe, maybe, 1% fall into this ‘innocent’ category.

Now, there are various ways of dealing with these tweets once they’re in your view, in your view I repeat through no effort of your own, in your view because they’ve been put there quite deliberately by someone whose only motive is to offend or, if you’re both cynical and forgiving, to bolster follower count by offending someone.

There’s what I call The Cathartic Response: Retweet the offending tweet without comment. Get it out of your system and just slap it out there for the world to see. It can’t ‘hurt’ you any more and it has the side-effect of letting your followers and fans know that someone’s been nasty to you. Who knows? Someone may… remonstrate with the tweeter and let them know that their’s is a minority view.

(I’m reminded of the tale of George Bernard Shaw, upon taking his bows at a first night to thunderous applause, and detecting one person booing. GBS is reputed to have responded “Personally, sir, I agree, but what are we two against the multitudes?” I don’t believe it. I think Shaw probably told him to fuck off.)

Then there’s the “I’ll show him” Response, where the creator point blank tells his followers to take on the tweeter. Though I have little sympathy for the tweeter, this is just plain stupid.

As is the Hit Back Just As Nastily Response, as exemplified by Giles Coren yesterday. Yes, it’s tempting, but it ends up with neither ‘side’ smelling of roses. I suspect that Coren’s tweet will become the new example of “tweet in haste, repent in leisure.”

The only sensible thing to do is… to do nothing. And that’s about as likely as no-one ever reading the comments on the Internet.

So you’re left with the not very sensible things to do.

Which is also unsatisfactory.

I don’t know the solution – I really don’t.

But here’s an idea. It’s novel, I know, and terribly old fashioned, but then in many ways, I’m a terribly old-fashioned bloke.

How about… just not doing it, people of Twitter? How about having the common courtesy not to ‘@’ someone if you’re taking a pop at them? How about just thinking a moment before hitting that “Send” button?

How about… just behaving like you’re not a dick?

  1. Lee Barnett says:

    It’s evcen worse when I get the vituperations, inended for you.

  2. kromagg says:

    That basically leaves you no way to link to the person’s twitter account, except doing the roundabout twitter.com/budgie. So even if someone wants to say someone nice like:
    “I don’t agree with the point about chunky peanut butter but @budgie really nails the importance of peanut butter jelly sandwiches here ”

    That’s simply a hole in twitter’s UI (you can link, which is what I would do, if I were actually following said writer, but it’s not integrated into the interface, @-mentions are).

    In any case, I am sure it is not always simply meant to offend you or to ruin your day. I just thought of a very innocent reason just off the top of my head.

    • I’m not sure you even have to look for “innocent” for tweets like that; that’s not a nasty tweet in any way, shape or form, surely?

      I’ve had several tweets from people who’ve said they don’t think a story I’ve written is as good as others. But there’s a huge difference between criticising a minor bit of a piece, and going full out ‘nasty’, being contemptuous of the work or the writer.

      Had you written, instead of the mild tweet above, “@budgie doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about – peanut butter jelly is wonderful, and anyone who things otherwise is a dick”, there’s no “innocence” there about including my “@”.

      • kromagg says:

        I guess I usually see criticism and personal attacks as two very different things. Criticism is okay in the right context, but unfortunately @-mentions will expose you to that criticism (however mild or constructive) during your morning coffee. It could carry the same weight as a critical e-mail, but the barrier of entry is so low I generally hold off on explicitly @-mentioning someone, even if I’m only mildly critical.

        Personal attacks, on the other hand, are never okay (okay, unless your target is Hitler), @-mentioning just makes it worse.

  3. *grimaces in sympathy*

    I’d be inclined to go with option (2) to characterize this…person.

    And the options currently available are, as you say, none of them very satisfying at all.

  4. leviathan0999 says:

    Yeah, I’m sorry, I have no sympathy for this point of view. If you’re going to have a “Presence” on twitter in which you promote your writing, blogging, columnizing, (Yes, ugly coinage for the lul of it, sue me) or what have you, then your twitter is fair game for responses. You like when someone tweets “@Budgie is the rockin’-est brilliant smart guy in Smartypantsistan”? Then you gotta take it on the chin when they tweet “@Budgie is the Lawrence-Welkiest inert, soporific idiot in Moronograd.” Rough with the smooth, lad, rough with the smooth.

    • Tracy says:

      Seconding this.

    • Chris says:

      I can buy into this point of view. Or at least partially.

      But then your logic works both ways. The critic has a presence on Twitter simply by having an account and making the choice not to make it private.

      And by trying to bring their comments to a person’s attention, they too are making themselves fair game for response. I mean, you can’t direct an abusive/critical comment at someone specifically and not expect some sort of “critique” of your tweet, surely? And if your tweet *was* abusive, is it not fair you should expect an abusive tweet back?

      That’s not to say you’ll necessarily get a response, but I don’t think you can reasonably act surprised and offended if you do.

  5. leviathan0999 says:

    Oh, and feel free to flame me for this on twitter: @leviathan0999

  6. Anon says:

    I used to include tags because, well, they’re there, and it’s the easiest way to highlight who I’m talking about. I mean it’s right there, and it’s clickable. I’m not particularly abusive, and most of my tagged tweets are actually conversations rather than mentions.

    However, I’ve been a little more careful since getting a reply from someone with a fair amount of fame. The tweet wasn’t offensive, but highlighting someone’s well thought out critique of their piece, and I worded the tweet a little provocatively.

    Quite frankly, though it was directed “@” them, I didn’t consider that they’d actually read it. It seemed they likely had enough of a profile that they’d be getting so many mentions they couldn’t reasonably read them all. Not so, it seems. Or perhaps mine was the one they did read.

    In short, I tend to try and consider whether I should “@” someone, or just mention their name.

  7. Elise Logan says:

    There’s a third option. That it isn’t a personal attack, but merely a linkage – the smack in your face is a side benefit, not the main point. Many people are in the habit of providing links to the people/products they are discussing as a matter of course – a way for the people in their stream to check out what they are talking about. More like a hyperlink to an article you are discussing in a blog post. You’ll get a ping-back for that link, so you’ll know it’s been mentioned. Granted, the effect is different because you are, effectively, sticking a lighted sign under the @’d individual’s nose, but that may be merely a side-effect rather than the intent.

    Then again, I generally abide by the Wil Wheaton advice, so when I @ a person, it’s unlikely to cause major personal angst. But in some cases, I think it’s simply a situation of the poster doesn’t care one way or the other whether you see it – but the habit is there.

    Do I truthfully think that’s the majority of cases? No. I think it’s probably mostly a case of option 2 mentioned above. But there does remain the theoretical possibility of another option.

  8. Ann Kittenplan says:

    In the end just bc it’s got your name on it doesn’t make it a personal attack? They’re looking for someone or something to attack and you came across the radar. If you’d not posted that day, they would have used someone else’s name.

    How seriously can you take someone who attacks you in this way? Ultimately it’s fairly sad. Pity might be an appropriate response.

    (Incidentally, using @budgie, well that’s your Twitter name. Doesn’t have to be pre-meditated or definitely intended that you see it but if I want to talk about your Twitter presence I have to call you @budgie.)

  9. I've seen you naked. says:

    Their profile pic sometimes contains location data and then you can find their house.

  10. Wellington says:

    A good rule is not to say something on twitter you would not say to that same person face to face. If you address them with an @, it is essentially a conversation being started. Just because you cannot see the recipient does not mean your comment does not affect them (though computer screens tend to create this kind of ‘reality breaker’. The nuance of this (very necessary) new etiquette is in the tweeter discerning whether or not he is talking about a writer, or to him. I think that Nick Robinson is a poor reporter. I might say this to my friends, and I am well within normal social bounds for wanting to do so. I would never send him a litter calling him a prick. And if you are 1) rude about someone (often acceptable) 2) @ it, and thus send that person a transcript of your rudeness (which is essentially verbal abuse) you have crossed this line from criticism, and private, to public, and abuse.

  11. Mayhaps twitter needs an antithesis to follow friday, with an abbreviated hashtag version essentially stating “I’m right and you’re wrong, nanny-nanny boo-boo stick your head in poo-poo.” In theory, this might help to embarrass the naysayers into second guessing themselves.

    But then, it’s also a given that most folks are just plain retarded. In that regard, ignorance (of the existence of idiots) is total bliss.

  12. ginger_head_man says:

    you make the point of mentioning that you can change channel on the television, yet you act like you are being forced to use twitter. If you don’t like the @ attacks then maybe considering changing the twitter channel? or switching it off completely?

    I agree that it is a sad state of affairs when people feel the need to direct their vehemence against a person directly, but you are still choosing to read it.

  13. hrolfk says:

    OK, confession time. I have done this once and it may give you another reason – mistaken dickishness.

    It was late at night, and I’d tweeted about cooker websites (real life eh?!) One had videos that had a pleasant calming effect – they were informative and surprisingly honest (pointing out ‘you shouldn’t waste your money on this if…’).
    I then mooched around the internet looking at other sites, before tweeting that I found a certain journalists’ videos much the same as cooker videos, and linked to her account.

    She immediately replied with something along the lines of, ‘Why are you watching something you don’t enjoy, you dick.’

    That was a fair point as she’d only seen that single tweet and obviously didn’t like cooker salesmen, but amongst my recent timeline it was an honest attempt at being nice.
    As she almost certainly blocked me, she didn’t see my immediate reply explaining I did enjoy her videos, finding them refreshing and pleasantly relaxing, despite having no interest in the subjects. And she also hadn’t noticed (but why would she?) the tweet the week before praising her honest approach, and how I’d told my niece to check out her stuff.

    So yes, such tweets are generally dickish. But maybe give the sender some slack? Ask for clarification before stomping back? You don’t want to be the dick in this relationship.

    Having said that, if it happens a lot (and being high profile brings a different experience on twitter) I’m sure life is too short.

    I’d go for the advice that you regard twitter as a very crowded room – act accordingly. So if you shout at people in public places, go for it on twitter. We need to know who to avoid.

  14. Leigh Caroline says:

    I’ll admit. I judge writers all too often by how they interact with their fans. If I read a book and enjoy it, I tend to look up the author. If I see them blasting insults with people, no matter how much I liked that book, they’ve lost any future sales from me. I have a long enough TBR pile as it is, I don’t need nasty people on it. Conversely, there have been a lot of writers that I’ve interacted first with online, and that interaction got me to buy their books.

  15. nathanmiller says:

    What MP said that? It’s hilarious.

  16. Bob says:

    Perhaps even more depressing to acknowledge: some attacks are not personal and are not from individuals (in the conventional sense). If you review the technical literature regarding Twitter and social media, you will note that “sock puppets” are now widely used. Public Relations (PR) firms now have divisions that specialize in representing client companies on social network systems. (Chrysler Corp famously fired its PR firm not long ago http://adage.com/article/digital/chrysler-splits-media-strategies-f-bomb-tweet/149335/ ).

    There are also fake-postings from government sponsored sock puppets. The US government let a RFP recently for “persona management” software (to automate and expand sock-puppet capability http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2011/02/22/exclusive-militarys-persona-software-cost-millions-used-for-classified-social-media-activities/ ). This is assumed to be part of their “Information Operations” activity (what we have historically called psychological warfare operations PSYOPS).

    And then there are entire faked/orchestrated movements. The activity is known as Astroturfing. The US telecom industry is famous for manipulating Congress and the FCC using these Professionally-Managed citizen movements. Online-astroturfing (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2011/feb/23/need-to-protect-internet-from-astroturfing)

    So, some of the postings are not always what they seem. We warn our children about the lies and manipulation they may receive from online pedophile predators. It turns out corporations and our own governments are predators too.

  17. willshome says:

    This is utterly ridiculous. The @ link is at the heart of Twitter interaction and makes it what it is. Without it the rapid spread of ideas and new people to follow would be sluggish at best or dry up altogether. The implication of your article is that, while it’s fine to reply to any old commoner’s tweet in an honest or even brutal fashion, no one should use Twitter to respond honestly to a “creative” about their longer works. That’s bollocks.
    If a “creative” wants to avoid honest reactions to his work on Twitter then he can take part in Twitter anonymously; if he uses his own name he presumably consents to being linked with his wider work and should expect interactions to reflect that. (Most seem gratified by the constant stream of “great column by…” and links to said column – though these are no use to GC behind his Murdoch paywall of course.)
    In the case of Giles Coren, he uses Twitter to sell himself in the most blatant way since his profile links not to a personal website but directly to Amazon to buy his book “Anger Management”. (Ha!) Where he gets some rave reviews but also (look away now Giles) “Narcissistic bore…”, “not funny enough…” and “Rich restaurant reviewer compiles tawdry list of things that annoy him…” Is he going to go and scream at them too? That’s the democracy of the internet for you.
    The fact is that anyone who has 100,000 followers (God knows why) and then chooses to attack in vile terms a more lowly member of his own profession is in effect leading a mob, and that has responsibilities. Only his (mild) critic’s own followers would have heard her criticism at all if he had ignored it (or taken it to heart). As it is, I suspect the furore came from his own followers appalled – first that such terms should even occur to an educated man who is, I understand, the father of a young daughter, and second that they should be addressed to someone whose only sin was to find his writing boring.
    That a journalist should be so stung and devastated by the idea that anyone should find his writing boring that all standards of civilised behaviour can be thrown to the wind suggests that he has a quite unrealistic view of the level of his own talent. Admittedly, someone who has managed to make a living by eating one meal, and having one opinion, per week might be encouraged to imagine that he has a magic touch.
    The useful warning from the rising demographic that his middle-aged rantings don’t reach everyone should have been a wake-up call as he is working (as are we all) in the sunset industry of the “creative” as elite. Deblogracy is just around the corner. At which point he may be forced into finding a proper job, unless he can turn eating odd food in funny togs into a full-time profession or learn to be much funnier. His delightful father, who I was privileged to meet once, oozed wit, charm and old fashioned good manners and could make anything funny. (A gentle witticism about dog-shit on the occasion of our meeting.) Whereas the son appears to have a talent for turning anything funny into dog-shit.

  18. @Mr_Trebus says:

    Kind of ironic I stumbled on this through a tweet with a @budgie in it – an because I liked what I tea I’m now following. I couldn’t have done that without the @.

  19. DanS says:

    Course, there’s now also The Budgie Response – you just hit reply and paste a link to this (pleasantly articulate) blog post…

  20. earwicker says:

    The only problem with this is the predictable outcome: if insulters switch to using ordinary full names, celebrities will start running regular vanity searches for their own full name, so they can still see all the insults referring to them.

    I know of at least one BBC radio presenter who has complained many times of being insulted on Twitter, who runs such a search while he is on air, and responds bitterly to anyone mentioning his full name in an unfavourable tweet!

    Ignoring insults is surely by far the most powerful weapon. Just enjoy how much your success enrages the poor nobodies, and don’t give them the satisfaction of acknowledging their existence. That’s always been part of the celebrity lifestyle.

    Twitter somehow seems to trick famous people into believing that the rules have changed, but they haven’t really.

  21. david says:

    Grow up, get over it and stop whining, imo. Life is a fight to the death, Twitter doubly so.
    Anyone who imagines themselves above anyone else will soon find reality has steel toecaps.

  22. Katie says:

    I’m afraid I subscribe to “there’s no need to be nasty” philosophy, whether that means sending an abusive email to someone or @ing them on twitter or shouting at them in the street. This post seems reasonable to me.

  23. Flarn says:

    As an internet geek who believes in the hyperlink, it takes an incredible act of will to not @ anyone who’s on twitter. The web dictates—to me at least—that the @ should be included when referencing someone on twitter. This, I think, is a valid reason to include the @ and should be included with the 2 reasons given above.

    Of course some things do require self-restraint.

  24. […] Sometimes there's a great story and I want to repeat it, but I want more facts. I was reading a blog recently that claimed that a politician once, in response to being called a "stupid c**t," stated that there […]

  25. […] Sometimes there's a great story and I want to repeat it, but I want more facts. I was reading a blog recently that claimed that a politician once, in response to being called a "stupid c**t," stated that there […]

  26. sporkdelis says:

    I’ve managed to #2 myself into not doing a minor #1 faux pas. I wrote a review of a blogger’s novel. I love the blog, the book was lukewarm and confusing for me. In the spirit of being an honest blog person, taking responsibility for my opinions, I was going to advertise my post even though I knew people were going to ream me over it.

    Of course I accidentally didn’t @ that writer, so she didn’t see it, her followers didn’t see it… I didn’t realize that until I noticed that no one had looked at my site. Needless to say, I didn’t fix the tweet. I wussed out… figured I had done my duty and could leave it at that.

    I know this isn’t the nasty comments thing, but if I was going to write nasty comments about people on twitter, I might actually do it without thinking about it.
    I know I didn’t know that the @ thing went to your account for a while after I started using twitter, but I had no one sending me anything directly, so there was only observation to guide me.

  27. face to face, my policy is to discombobulate the speaker with something unspeakably nice, e.g. to “You look ugly” I’d reply with “Oh, you look lovely, especially your hair”. It is usually met with silence as perplexion slows the mouth down. Sometimes it results in blundering regret. Either way, both results are nicer knowing that I’ve not said something horrid to someone even if they deserved it. I can feel smug that I’m always more lovely than my worst enemy/ies. I’ve never had to try it online yet but am ready to. Will report back when I’ve figured out if it works the same. @Chuckiestealady – got here by @Glinner link I think.

  28. drpepperupperhand says:

    Here’s my comment–after reading the first half of your rant. Sorry, I gave up after the foul language and hateful affect got too thick for civilized conversation. Some fool purporting to be Neil Gaiman twitted this to me with an @ mark. It has nothing to do with me. I never heard of you before, and don’t want to hear from you again.

  29. Craig McGill says:

    I know this may be the differing point of view: but what if someone is being a dick on Twitter and needs called out on it? We aren’t all saints, we aren’t always in good moods and if the likes of Stephen Fry can act like an arse on Twitter – like the time he did when the guy tweeted to him that he didn’t think he was as funny as he used to be – then what chance have mere mortals?

    There’s also the other issue of what one person finds harsh/offensive. I can handle being called a dick all day long because I come from a tabloid newsroom culture where that sort of language doesn’t even count as swearing and I’ve a (relatively) thick skin. Others don’t but does that mean we need to pander and avoid any sort of negative criticism?

    Answering my own question there: of course we don’t. It all comes down to one thing: use of language. I’m more likely to take someone serious if they make the criticism constructively than just saying “he talk’s shite and he’s a dick” but that can be hard to do in 140 characters.

    The best way to deal with it I find is to ask two simple questions when insulted/criticised online: “Does this person have a point? Can I see their viewpoint?” If you do that and find you did nothing wrong, then you just get on with life – but it’s always worth trying to see the other viewpoint first. Who knows, you might learn something about yourself.

    But if you’re reading this, you’re a dick, a walloper and fuckwit anyway.

  30. subversion says:

    There is a part of me that agrees there scope to challenge the idea without challenging the individual – but it does break down where the idea is the intellectual property of the individual and therefore part of their identity – what really is the difference between saying I think your ideas are a crock and I think your dress sense belongs in a pantomime!

    The trouble is that technology has enabled a generation of internet warriors and social media has become the battleground! What irks me the more is that most wouldn’t have the testicular volume to say it to your chops!

    Hope you are well..

    S x

    • I rarely say anything ugly about people on Twitter, but when I do, it’s usually because we are getting into an argument. Even then, come to think of it, I don’t say, “You’re stupid,” though I will say, “That’s a stupid statement.”

      To say something bad about someone and NOT include the @ is the same as talking about him behind his back. If you’re going to say something critical, or even downright ugly, you need to take ownership of that remark. In short, you are obligated to give the target of your criticism the chance to respond.

      Now, when people get ugly with me, just out of the blue, I tweet something like, “You are not my idea of a good time,” and block that person. Yes, sure it means they won’t see your parting shot, but do you care? I don’t. Just get them out of your sight. And most of the time, they’ll forget about you pretty darn fast and find a new target. Maybe the new target will be armed and ready for them.

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