Twitter, rather than existing as an amorphous abstract cloud of individual opinions, links and gifs, is closely bound up with existing communities and groups.
Scotland is notable for the skill of its political classes on Twitter. The leaders of the Scottish National Party, Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives are all adept tweeters. They joke, snipe, tease and engage with their own followers and those of rival parties.
As Twitter is one of the major methods of public communication between Scottish journalists and politicians it is unsurprising that events on the site frequently make the news.
Last week provided quite a spectacular example.
On Sunday, the Scottish Rugby team lost a quarter final game of the Rugby World Cup against Australia.
It was a tight, emotional and highly charged defeat and many supporters took to Twitter to express their grief.
J.K Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series quoted a tweet which said: ‘Don’t care. Scotland were magnificent!!! Magnificent!!!’
True that. https://t.co/ZFFDmmdVMK
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) October 18, 2015
Stuart Campbell, curator of the popular pro-independence blogging site wingsoverscotland.com replied:
And that’s when Scottish Twitter went into meltdown. Campbell’s comments were spread across the internet, Rowling responded, and Twitter opinion fell down firmly on the side of the author. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted her tacit support,
Note to my fellow independence supporters. People who disagree are not anti Scottish. Does our cause no good to hurl abuse (& it’s wrong) — Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) October 18, 2015
Campbell refused to apologise for his comments and posted a list of prominent journalists who had also told other tweeters to ‘f*** off’.
From his perspective there was no story. What on earth was remarkable about one tweeter swearing at another? Did he have a point?
Users swear at each other all the time on Twitter, why should this particular incident be news-worthy?
The spat goes to the heart of the ‘social versus media’ nature of Twitter.
Often journalists forget that most people are not on Twitter to just read their tweeted stories but to interact with other users, watch videos and tell jokes.
Twitter is a functional social area, and thus it is unsurprising that most people expect people to behave as they would in ‘real-life’.
In ‘real-life’ exchanges between celebrities or other prominent people are reported on, it is part of the bread and butter of journalism.
Rowling is a world famous author and became a prominent ‘no’ campaigner in last year’s referendum.
Although his popularity is not quite as stratospheric, Campbell is a well-known figure in Scottish politics. Wings over Scotland is a very successful site, it has thousands of readers in Scotland and played a huge role in influencing Scottish political debate during the referendum.
Tweeters thought the winner of the Twitter spat was obvious…
The point should be obvious.
While it might indeed be un-newsworthy when users without the profile Rowling and Campbell enjoy are at each other’s’ throats when one of the biggest names in Scottish ‘new media’ swears at the country’s most famous author in an online tantrum after a national rugby game the news value is evident.
The story also falls within a long running narrative, that of the pernicious ‘cybernat’, the keyboard nationalist who hides behind a glowing screen accusing people of being ‘anti-Scottish’ and ‘quislings’.
De-toxifying the idea of nationalism has been a key part of the SNP’s strategy in the past few years.
Instinctively wary of flag-waving political enthusiasts the SNP have had to patiently put the case to Scotland and Britain that nationalism is not such a dangerous creed as many suppose.
They have had some success, support for the party and independence has never been higher, but, as it should be obvious, outbursts like Campbell’s do not help.
As Sturgeon tweeted, it ‘does our cause no good to hurl abuse.’
J.K Rowling reacts to Campbell’s comment
Campbell is, to some extent, a savvy media operator, but the lack of understanding that the ‘social’ side to Twitter is as important as the ‘media’ side and that our online personalities are crucial in how we might put across our political views and news to others is short-sighted and damaging.
Perhaps I am being naïve, maybe Campbell is completely aware and goes out of his way to cultivate his particular online persona described by STV’s digital correspondent Stephen Daisley as ‘…brash, aggressive, personal. Other blogs shoot from the hip; Wings shoots its targets in the hip.’
To his followers ‘Wings’ is a one man army against the unthinking unionist establishment media, fighting a lonely battle against misrepresentation and one of the few genuine voices in Scotland who tells the truth as it is.
But all people see if they have never come into contact with him or his site before is one man swearing at the woman who wrote Harry Potter.
It is not a good look.
It is easy ammunition for his opponents, further embeds ideas of ‘cybernattery’, scares off those floating voters and makes the media space in Scotland a more aggressive and threatening place.
In short it’s a tactical disaster for the pro-independence movement. Perhaps more importantly than any of these reasons though, is that is just downright unpleasant.
Oh my goodness it’s so embarrassing so many people trying to dredge a thousand words out of someone telling someone to f-off on Twitter. — John Walker (@botherer) October 19, 2015
Some Tweeters did not see what all the fuss was about
If the internet is an extension of our social space why should it be acceptable to behave differently online than how we might interact were we face-to-face?
I would be interested to know, would Campbell still tell Rowling to ‘f*** off’ if she was standing next to him watching the rugby in the stadium?
Decency, politeness and respect are important in the public space. Indeed, it is the only way debate and honest disagreement can fruitfully take place.
Twitter is a powerful tool for journalists. Used well it enables you to find previously unreachable readers from all across the world, build committed and engaged communities and nurture a network of contacts and friends.
But used poorly it can damage the public arena by toxifying public debate, increasing feelings of intimidation and reducing disagreement and debate to aggression and insults.
Last Sunday Rowling said that all ‘Wings’ contributed to Scottish political discussion was ‘bile.’
If he does not stop soon, that’s all anyone else will be able to see too.
J.K Rowling, photo by Daniel Ogren [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons