The Less Fun Side of Social Media

On the evening of 6 November 2012, while enjoying a pre-election party drink with Scott, we shared a laugh about all the right wingers who’d been claiming they’d move to Canada or Australia if Barack Obama was re-elected. I pulled out my phone and tweeted:1

For those saying “if Obama wins I’m going to Australia” our PM is a single atheist woman & we have universal health care & mandatory voting.

It took a bit of juggling to get it all to fit. Curse the 140 character limit! I had to change “living in sin” to “unmarried” and then to “single”. (Oh, how I wish I’d thought to say “unwed”. Even fewer characters! Though it would have been best if I’d found a way to get “living in sin” to fit.) I also had to delete the bit about Australia also having strict gun control as well as turning the “and”s into ampersands.

I then put the phone down and went back to chatting with Scott before heading to the election party. By the time we got there that tweet had already been retweeted several thousand times. It went on to be tweeted more than 11,000 times. My mentions were more crowded than they’ve ever been.

Exciting, huh? My previous biggest retweet had been a matter of hundreds, not thousands. I was thrilled. And so retweeted and answered many of the responses I got.

But as the next few days unfolded my mentions remained clogged with people responding. Most were polite saying things like “go you” and “this.” Some shared drop bear jokes and agreed that Australia is indeed awesome compared to the USA. But all too many others felt compelled to explain to me that Gillard has a partner and is not single. I know! Or to yell at me not to diss atheism/universal healthcare/mandatory voting/Australia/the USA/Christianity/puppies. Um, what?

Many people, mostly Australians, decided to school me on the many things that are wrong with Australia. Um, youse lot? I AM AUSTRALIAN. I am aware. I was also called “a sexist bitch.” What on Earth? And some much worse things.

This went on for an entire week. Making it really hard to respond to the usual folks in my mentions because they kept zipping by lost in the maelstrom of all those people responding to that one damn tweet. Yes, I was very tempted to delete it.

At least when one of my blog posts goes viral I can control the comments. It’s much harder with mentions. I wound up blocking many people. Which is not ideal and I suspect some of those people were not being particularly offensive. I was just over being yelled at by random strangers every few seconds.

A year later and I think I would have handled it differently. Possibly by staying off Twitter for a week.

It really makes me wonder how those with tens of thousands of followers cope. How on earth can you keep up with that many mentions flooding back at you from your gazillion followers? How is dialogue possible?

I follow several people who talk about how hard it is to deal with their mentions. Most of them have followers of 6,000 or more and most of them tweet about politics and social justice. Their mentions are frequently a sewer of sexist and racist hatred. I really don’t know how they cope.

The sad fact is that the more popular you are the more hated you are. As more people know who you are, more people have opinions, and not all those opinions are favourable. Compounding that is the sexist, racist world we live in. If you are female you attract more vitriol than if you are male. If you are a person of colour you attract more hatred that if you are white. And if you tweet about social justice while female and of colour you get the most hate of all.

My tiny little experience of the random hatred of strangers made me even more aware of how awful it is to deal with that bullshit every single day. It made me even more appreciative of the bravery and strength of those bloggers and tweeters who continue to speak out about social justice even while bands of trolls yell at them to shut up already.

It made me more determined to keep on tweeting and blogging and speaking out and supporting those who get attacked for doing the same. But also more understanding of those who delete their social media accounts and walk away.

I’ve also stopped tweeting at people I don’t know or who don’t follow me unless they tweet at me first, or it’s part of a conversation with other people that do follow me/I know personally. I now know what it feels like to have many strangers tweeting/yelling at me. I don’t want to add to that noise or be part of what makes good people walk away from social media.

We are in the very early days of negotiating these brand new ways of communicating. It’s fascinating and wonderful but pretty bloody scary too.

Would love to hear some of the wisdoms you’ve all learned about it.

  1. Julia Gillard is no longer Australia’s female, atheist, living in sin Prime Minister. But I remain proud that she once was and that Australia has universal health care (no matter how imperfect), strict gun control and mandatory voting. []


  1. Preiman790 on #

    I suspect a good number of people with the comment problem utilize Twitter’s list feature to make sure they don’t miss anything. just add yourself to the list as well as those you keep regular contact with and you will see there replies and mentions of you there.

  2. Steve Turner on #

    I’m afraid some of them would want to move here now with our recent political changes… so let’s keep on emphasising the universal healthcare and mandatory voting 🙂

  3. Justine on #

    Preiman790: Sadly though that doesn’t work for authors etc like me who want to respond to and interact with our fans.

    Steve Turner: Yes. We’ll have to cling to them and our tough gun laws. Though with NSW now allowing shooting in national parks . . . Ugh. (Don’t get me started on Zoe’s Law.)

  4. JJ on #

    Somehow I’ve been fairly lucky–as a woman of colour, even!–as to not receive a ton of hate online, on either Twitter or my blog, and I do blog about social justice and other issues that are important to me. But my platform is not particularly huge, and I think people don’t notice me tweeting/blogging. Which, in many ways, is perfectly fine by me, as my tweets/blog posts are mostly read by likeminded people and I can escape a lot of the awfulness that is the unfiltered internet.

    But as far as Twitter goes, I add people to lists. I have a list of “The Usual Suspects” (as I’ve named it), to which I’ve added the people with whom I regularly communicate. It helps sort through the @replies quicker!

  5. Julia Rios on #

    I’ve so far been lucky and mostly avoided nasty comments online, but I’m also pretty conservative in what I post, even in my role as a promoter of QUILTBAG and otherwise diverse SF. I’m conservative, not in a right wing politician sort of way, but more in that I don’t tend to post rants about problems so much as positive reinforcement of things I see being done well. The reason I don’t do that is that conflict is super stressful to me, and I know I just don’t have the energy to engage in the battles that will ensue if I do talk openly about all the things that need fixing. I have MAJOR respect for the people who do have that energy, and who choose to devote some of their precious personal time to social justice activism.

    I do always support and respect people when they decide to step away, but I also do my best to support them when they’re in the middle of fighting to make problems more visible. I’m a person who is more likely to say, “Yes, this. I agree this is a problem.” Most of the time I forgive myself for not being the person leading the charge, but I also know that we couldn’t make headway without those leaders.

  6. Justine on #

    JJ: Thanks. You’re right there is definitely a number of followers beyond which you start to really see a huge jump in strangers yelling. I’ve heard some people posit it to be 6,000. Others to be 10,000 but it also seems to be complicated by race and gender.

    But for sure the more followers you have the worse this gets. I’ve seen friends having to deal with 100k and up and it gets awful especially if you really do want to respond to fans which renders the use of lists not helpful.

    I’m over 8,000 and am yelled at almost not at all (except obviously the exception above). But I’m white. I definitely think that protects me some.

    Julia Rios: I have MAJOR respect for the people who do have that energy, and who choose to devote some of their precious personal time to social justice activism.

    So much this. They’re remarkable.

    I do think that as you say being supportive is important too.

  7. Wednesday on #

    I was an early adopter, and managed to get my name.

    I get utterly *random* hate tweets by people who think I’m literally the embodiment of a weekday. Usually, it’s seething rage over a bad day or something not turning up/out as expected. Frequently, it’s fake RTs from people roleplaying me as a vengeful demigoddess out to ruin said days or events. When manual RTs of fake RTs get into the mix, no amount of blocking or muting will make a viral one stop.

    Once, it was a torrent of angry Nicki Minaj fans. Her single or video or album or something didn’t drop on time. I’m used to Bieber fans getting mad over delays, but this was overwhelming. My damn mentions wouldn’t stop scrolling.

    Twitter has no policy which covers this sort of thing. I tried a few times, but it’s not abuse when the tweet’s about an abstract concept instead of a person.

    I maintain a locked primary account at the moment. I think about changing this, because it would be useful to maintain a more public presence on this Very Useful Piece of Namespace.

    Then I think about the angry Minaj fans, and what happens when the attacks on a day become attacks on me, and I kind of panic.

  8. Justine on #

    Wednesday: Wow. Just wow. It never even crossed my mind something like that could happen. That’s utterly surreal. Can you imagine if someone wrote a science fiction story along those lines ten years ago? People would just stare.

  9. Wednesday on #

    I’ve had namespace confusion in older spaces, so it wouldn’t have shocked me ten years ago. That said, now I want to hurl myself back in time and tell myself to jump on that idea all trampoline-style.

  10. Justine on #

    Wednesday: I meant more the whole idea of social media and the resulting confusions. But, yes, going back ten years in time so much we could achieve!

    I just remembered a similar one: someone whose twitter handle was @ashes was suddenly deluged with (to her) incomprehensible tweets about the ashes cricket test series between Australia and England.

  11. Wednesday on #

    Justine: wow, does that bring back memories of the Sheffield Wednesday Football Club supporters!

    Re: your tweet, the day of the week brings new music videos, new American comic books, and the infamous Hump Day (euuuurrrrgh). Music is the biggest thing to cross my radar, though. Comic fans know how to use hashtags!

  12. Dan on #

    I’ve only just begun getting random people picking Twitter fights with me over the most inconsequential and mindless things (eg whether or not Matthew Hayden called Harbhajan Singh a ‘noxious weed’ or an ‘obnoxious weed’ (he called him the latter, for the record, as any Google search without the adjective will tell you)).

    So far it’s not been too bad and I’ve been able to deal with these strange people in a good-humoured fashion. But I’ve seen Twitter friends with more followers than me cop a lot worse and I honestly don’t know how I’d cope if I ever get to that stage. I like the idea of using lists to break my @replies into those people I always want to see and groups of new people who I’ll just skim through occasionally to try and find the sane ones. I haven’t needed to do that so far, but it sounds like a good tactic to keep up my sleeve.

    Wednesday, you have my sympathy. Although as a comic book reader, I’m pleased to hear our collective hashtag-using prowess means we don’t impinge too much on you.

  13. Justine on #

    Dan: It mystifies me that anyone will argue about stuff that can be proven one way or the other in about 2 seconds. And yet people do.

    I’ve been impressed with how calmly and amusingly you deal with the lunatics. Especially those who accuse you of being an Aussie jingoist when you are one of our chief mockers. May you continue to mock long and often and never have too many random strangers yelling at you.

  14. Cameron on #

    Unfortunately people tend to choose to interpret things according to their own hot button bias rather than look at what is being said and the intent behind it (to paraphrase, dicks will usually choose to act like dicks, and sometimes we’re all dicks). Twitter just exposes you to more dicks (although apparently not as many as chat roulette).

    But as you point out the social media is still the wild west. I know a few sites (e.g. Popular Science) that have closed comments or make you link to your Facebook (grr) account to register at the site.

    I like the way Scalzi deals with it, but that takes a lot of time, and a willingness to rejoice in the malice.

    I wisely avoid Twitter, I like black humour and I tend to be a little blunt (a man’s got to know his limitations).

  15. Benjamin Rosenbaum on #

    I have only two random thoughts:

    1) I know Premian790 already brought up the lists thing and I know you don’t intend to exile yourself to a tiny subset of twitter, but in times of deluge I expect it could be useful to maintain a list of people of whom you simply want to make sure you don’t miss what they’re saying, in addition to also trying to tread water in the main torrent.

    2) I just saw a headline here which reminded me of Switzerland’s awesome/ridiculous phrase for “living in sin”, which is “Konkubinat”. Like, “living as a concubine”. If we had that in English you could have said she was an atheist concubine. Sort of Conan meets Richard Dawkins.

  16. Justine on #

    Cameron: You’re missing out. Twitter is absolutely fabulous. Totally agree with you about Scalzi’s malleting skills.

    Benjamin Rosenbaum: Have I mentioned that I love your brain?

    1) I suppose so but it seems like an effort involving many key strokes. If only I had a mindreading minion . . .

    2) That’s hilarious. Can you imagine the abuse if I had used the word “concubine”? Eeek!

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