Only 16% of people in the UK are on Twitter, yet I am asked at least once a week — by journalists, publicists and occasionally actual people — why I’m not among them. The default setting of Twitter users is to assume there’s no reason why anyone wouldn’t be on Twitter. But as Stella Creasy and Caroline Criado-Perez have shown this week, there are some excellent reasons to avoid it like the snake pit it can be.
As an MP, Creasy probably has to be on Twitter. It’s the way politics now works: as membership of political parties disintegrates, it’s one way to raise your profile, especially among younger voters. But that accessibility is precisely what enables crazy people to contact her directly, threatening her with rape, murder, and various combinations of the two. Criado-Perez also operates in a political sphere: she’s a campaigner and runs a website. This is what Twitter is good for: raising awareness, driving net traffic. But the price she had to pay for that was receiving 50 rape threats in an hour.
Even if you’re not working in politics but merely offering an opinion in a public place, you can be on the receiving end of this kind of aggression. Mary Beard remains a devoted tweeter, in spite of receiving abuse after an appearance on Question Time which included the odd death threat. Frankly, I can do without that level of harassment in my life. If this changes, I’ll get the night bus one evening (which I’m confident can provide me with similar charmless behaviour from people I don’t know).
Shunning Twitter doesn’t exempt me from criticism but it does mean you have to go to the trouble of writing to me, and (sorry if it’s a disappointment), the nice man who runs my website only forwards the friendly mail. There could be a lynch mob heading towards my house right now, and I wouldn’t know it. I know it goes against the current trend of being constantly available for judgement by total strangers — positive or negative — but I’ve got stuff on.
My belief about Twitter has long been that joining it would enable me to listen in on a room filled with strangers. The conversation will leak out if it’s interesting (it’s a rare news bulletin that doesn’t mention Twitter). But, as with eavesdropping, the chances of hearing something you like about yourself seem pretty slim. The chances of hearing that a bunch of people you don’t know don’t like you are pretty high. Objectively, I already know lots of people must dislike me, or my work, or both, as they are fully entitled to do and express. I respect their freedom of speech and I exert my corresponding freedom to ignore them so I can get on with work and not hate my fellow man.