The Daily Telegraph has unleashed a derpstorm that follows the classic contours of a “moral panic” — mobilising concerned celebrities and sportspeople to back their “campaign”. It is curious that the moral panic has entered into the “moral entrepreneur” stage because of the outrage by rugby league player Robbie Farah. Farah allegedly posted a classic ‘troll’ tweet (now deleted) some time ago, suggesting that Prime Minister Julia Gillard be given a “noose” for her birthday. I’m not much of a rugby league fan, but maybe like other homosocial environments this is how rugby league players talk to each other? Surely mixing it up in a hyper-masculine world like rugby league would prepare you to suffer the indignities of public life as a sporting celebrity? Apparently not. The “noose” comment is a classic “joke” where you need to be able to appreciate masculine misogynist humour to “get it”. Women have long been derided for “not getting” the genius of men’s humour.
In other environments where I’ve spent some time (modified car scene and mine construction site), and similar to what I imagine happens in rugby league, there is a gradual process by which new members are introduced. If you want to be part of the community then you are put through your paces so as to demonstrate fitness for belonging. Fitness in the Darwinian sense, not the rugby league sense. Sometimes these are quasi-formal rites of passages, like hazing practices (having your work helmet adorned with an affectionately derogatory nickname) or tests of belonging, such as being able to demonstrate one’s know how about a topic (“Why is that intercooler pipe wrapped in heat tape?”). As most readers would agree, none of this is new.
What is new is the much lower barrier of entry for participating in similar communities online, and how we have delegated most of the responsibility for assembling social relations to the platform itself. There is no test of fitness for following someone on Twitter or for participating in a conversation through a hashtag. Online communities have tried to grapple with this problem for a very long time. For example, the concept of the “Eternal September” comes from a moment in the history of USENET when all the big US-based internet service providers enabled access to USENET as part of their internet subscription service. USENET was a precursor to what we now recognise as the World Wide Web and was documented in Howard Rheingold’s iconic 1993 text Virtual Communities. Rheingold’s text is interesting because the online communities he describes largely no longer exist. Sure, online users organise around their interests, and the legacy media are working desperately to find a way to remain relevant to such communities of interest, but the way sociality is now assembled is largely delegated to the platform rather than through human agents. A key example of this is the loss of status for the FAQ.
Rheingold discusses how the list of frequently asked questions was a solution to the problem of how to mediate between the quasi-expertise of long time inhabitants of online communities (such as USENET, etc.) and the sometimes frustrating questions repeatedly asked by “newbies”. The FAQ was a product of the experience of repeatedly answering the same questions from those newly interested in the practice, past-time, leisure activity and so on around which the community was organised. The FAQ was a social technology designed to enable the relatively pain-free (rite of) passage of welcoming new users into a community. Sometimes these involved complex negotiations between different participants in a shared community of interest. An example of this is the way Whirlpool has different rules and codes of conduct for community members versus representatives of commercial interests. Everyone is organised around a shared set of interests, but they are operating according to their own agenda.
There is no must read FAQ or passage as such that serves as a threshold of belonging or exclusion on Twitter. The work required of users to belong to previous iterations of virtual communities is now delegated to the platform. “Friending” and “following” removes much of the awkward human work required for actual friendship or even celebrity fandom. (Think about how much work is required to even care about Robbie Farah’s career.) Sure there is some mapping of offline social relationships to online platforms, and many social relations have blossomed purely online, but this delegation of the work required to form social relations is relatively new. Users familiar with earlier platforms were easily able to adapt to emerging Twitter-centric conventions and language, whereas new users mixing it up with the old timers had neither the culture or research impetus to discover these emerging conventions.
An added complication of the current trolling moral panic is that there is a battle being fought around whose voice should populate the mediated public sphere. The lower barrier of entry that enables Joe Blow to mix it up with Robbie Farah is highly threatening to established media interests. Worse, many journalists are probably just sick and tired of being told on Twitter that the publication they work for is trash; this potentially makes the current furore personal. The same delegation of work to the platform that enables “friending” also enables a diverse range of voices to participate in various conversations. If there is an abundance of content, and attention is now the scarcity, then the battle played out online is between different stakeholders in the economy of attention. Trolls disrupt attempts for the “mass” to be organised around specific coordinated points of attention, such as sportspeople and celebrities, which can be commodified into advertiser markets of audiences. Who has the most to lose in this situation? For example, another way to look at the Farah incident is that the real act of trolling was actually from Farah by inciting a response from anybody about his own concerns. Most adults put up with all kinds of negative social situations everyday, unlike young people who need support, we don’t expect others to solve our problems for us.
We have often delegated part of the work of assembling social relations to media technology, this is not new. The particular composition of social relations being assembled through Twitter and other social media platforms is new, however. What would a Twitter FAQ for newbies look like? I don’t mean in a public health or risk assessment sort of way that seeks to protect people from becoming victims; I mean in the sense of setting the barometer of expectation like rites of passage in offline social groups or the FAQs for community forums used to do. Send in your suggestions. What kind of social space do you want to assemble?
*Ed: Robbie Farah has since apologised and The Daily Telegraph has enlisted other celebrities in its moral panic campaign.*
Image by photosteve101 via Creative Commons Licence