The world is full of terrible people, and most of them are on Twitter. That’s a bold claim, but I’ll happily defend it for this reason: earlier this week, I met a Twitter mob.
The internet has done an excellent job of streamlining hate. Previous mobs had to source their own pitchforks and flaming torches, book the night off from work and arrange childcare. Twitter watches your kids, calls in sick for you and gives out orange slices at half-time. You’ve still got to find your own pitchforks, but I’m pretty sure there’s an app for that.
Mobs are common, but they’re not spontaneous. They usually need something to set them off, but it can start from a cheerleader standing at the front and wafting his pom-poms in the direction of the victim. In this case the pom-poms were green and the lycra-clad lovely wafting them was none other than Dara O’Briain, him off of the telly, and the target was the user @alan_osler.
The ruckus was caused by Dara being called (among other things) a “melon headed unfunny cunt” by Osler. O'Briain's response was to point Osler out to his army of 1.5m followers, along with the music teacher's personal website, followed by a couple of tweets telling his followers not to react, a suggestion that a significant amount of them chose to ignore. That’s the problem with having 1.5m followers: even if most of them can manage to resist cracking their knuckles and gleefully laying into the mean man on the internet, you’re still left with a fairly hefty amount who can't. His disclaimers were the equivalent of booting a snowball off a mountain and shouting down after it “you should probably stay up here though!”
Celebrities on Twitter have a bad habit of inciting mobs. Wanker of note Ricky Gervais has got a long history of bastardy in this department, as does Noel Fielding. While celebrities get torrents of verbal excrement thrown at them from all corners of the internet for the crime of having become famous, it’s bad form to fire fight with fire, especially when with millions of followers backing you up it’s more like dropping napalm on someone who flicked fag ash at you, however tempting. As Socrates once said, “with great power comes great responsibility”.
At some point during the fracas, I repeated the above to Dara over Twitter, and the glowing fires of the mob slowly turned to face me. “I feel isolated and commodified in this post-post-modern internet age and I have no way of expressing this so I lash out impotently at strangers before crying myself to sleep!” they thought to themselves, probably, and rumbled towards me instead. I got called some pretty harmless things - just call me Mr Whiny Fucking Gimp - and some sickening, life-changing, worse than racism things: somebody implied I was a Daily Mail reader.
The thing is, Dara is an intelligent man – he’s The Intelligent Man, as far as primetime entertainment goes – and he’s been in the Twitter game for far too long to not realise what a juicy piece of jerky he was dangling in front of the slathering mob. He told me that he thought his disclaimer actually successfully prevented many of his cretinous followers from jumping onboard the yelling, but it wasn’t quite as effective as never doing it in the first place would have been.
There was a happy ending of sorts to it all, anyway. The initial troll turned out to have found the whole thing a lark – it turned out the village the snowball was careering towards had built a protective wall (hello, is this Metaphor Overextenders Anonymous?) – but that doesn’t make the mob incitement any less dubious. After all, if he’d been sure in advance that the troll wouldn’t mind, Dara wouldn’t have bothered making a vague handwaving attempt to call his followers off. He was, it should be said, perfectly civil to me the whole time, even if his followers were doing their best impression of arseholes.
There’s no real moral to this story, except that it’s becoming increasingly advisable to conduct your arguments at half 11 in a pub smoking area or in the middle of a traffic jam on the M25 – the classics, basically. Arguing on the internet is becoming more like a team sport than a calm debate, only there’s no rules or referees and half the players are half-pissed. It’s the inevitable conclusion of taking a world full of terrible people, and putting most of them on Twitter.