I, Pseudonym – Part 4 – The Pitfalls of my life as a Pseudonym

This is Part 4 of the story of our erstwhile pseudonym, where the writer finds himself in some unpleasant situations.

The teacher Twitter network is a very pleasant, almost protected environment where the mood and tone is often overwhelmingly positive, friendly and gentle. Argument is rare, as are genuinely rebellious figures.  When I left that environment and plunged into regular, general Twitter, I was in for a shock. Many of them, really. Here are some of the pitfalls of getting involved in everyday political Twitter.

Pitfall One – Never ending arguments on #Auspol

One thing you experience fairly early on political streams such as the #auspol stream is that there are never ending arguments about the same topics, conducted by the same people, though with many new additions and a few subtractions. They are shouting at each other, megaphones in hand, over a ditch that will never be crossed. The users behind the accounts almost never stray into regular, everyday twitter and actually engage with people on a reasonable, rational level. They just like to shout – often in caps.

Every so often I would plunge back into Auspol to see how it was going, but really it was like Neighbours or EastEnders – it never changes, except the technology improves slightly. Whilst in 2010, it was articles and words that were retweeted, in 2014, the tweets were filled with unflattering pictures of either major party leader / various members of a parliamentary party with words written on them. These were either memes or meme fails (depending on who you talked to).

The pitfall is that for the uninitiated, they would be offended and puzzled by this never ending argument and might believe that “that is Twitter”. Certainly, media outlets that like to have articles about Twitter, they like to highlight the kind of abuse and insults that go with the territory of the #auspol tweeters. Best thing to do is pretend they don’t exist.

Pitfall Two – Twitter Storms

Twitter storms are an almost daily occurrence on Twitter and aren’t all that hard to start. These are the type of things where a whole range of people are outraged about something and need to complain about it on Twitter. A lot of the time, they are justified, but often times they aren’t. It’s hard for new time users to pick that difference, however. They usually go something like this:

  • Someone famous has tweeted something offensive / silly / rude OR
  • There’s been a picture that has been offensive / shocking OR
  • There has been an opinion piece on Fairfax or News Limited that has offended / shocked / outraged (Chris Kenny, Sam De Brito, Miranda Devine, Paul Sheehan, Piers Akerman, Mia Freedman and Gerard Henderson are often in this category) OR
  • Eddie McGuire has been Eddie McGuire OR
  • People in the Government / other political party have said something considered to be offensives, shocking, etc OR
  • Catherine Deveny or Helen Razer have written something contrarian and sharp edged

It’s then you have people arguing, shouting and the like – partially because there’s always someone on both sides. They die down after a few hours and rarely go into the next day – except if there’s people who are a day late to the news and reignite it because they missed out on the outrage. These twitter storms can be considered a bit of a pitfall, because they are ultimately a bit pointless and a waste of energy and passion. However, they do also act as a form of entertainment unrivalled by shouting at a sexist episode of Two and a Half Men. (Are there non sexist episodes?)

It’s not hard to be dragged into such Twitter storms and have one’s words misunderstood and misinterpreted. It also had the effect of draining one’s evening relaxation time with pointless, endless battles about tiny points. This happened to me a fair amount and so after a while I learnt the art of realising that my contributions would not help, but might well fan the flames. Mind you, it can be fun to fan flames with a well placed comment or two, especially if you have a decent number of followers, so I did indulge from time to time.

Pitfall Three. The Political Groups 

There are groups of twitter users who do tend to gravitate towards each other and will attack in groups if you express particular political and/or social views. This isn’t a “conspiracy”, it’s out in the open. As a result, to provide an example, if you express the view that the Israel army shouldn’t be bombing Gaza, there’s a group of users from various nations who will criticise you and accuse you of being a Hamas supporter – even if you have said that you think Hamas’ actions aren’t helping anyone in the situation. I experienced this each time I expressed that kind of opinion – so I can understand what kind of response that the Herald columnist Mike Carlton received. The problem for Carlton was that he didn’t just do what most experienced twitter users do and block and ignore. He bit back, which is what these people want. They can then go to a rival media organisation and show the evidence. Right now, that group can claim a “victim” of their campaign.

The same goes, however, if you express views about either political side that supports something they do. I have also seen this happen to journalists who have just written an article or completed an interview on TV – groups of people attacking them for perceived bias, and no matter how reasonable the responses can be, there will be no backing down by the groups.

It happened to me because my first AusVotes piece was critical of the people who continually shout the same things with their Twitter accounts and attack journalists rather than being reasonable and balanced with their critiques. For over a year, I had people attack me for suggesting that their tactics run the risk of watering down their message and scare off undecided voters and new Twitter users. The problem is that they get a fixed image of what you are like and what you think and you can’t disabuse them of that image. So if I experience those kind of group attacks, it just becomes easier to block, ignore and move on.

Pitfall Four – The Lack of Respect and Forums for Pseudonyms

There’s a lot of people using pseudonyms on Twitter. There’s a variety of reasons for them as well. These include:

  • The Cowards. People who attack and swear behind the cover of a Twitter pseudonym because they haven’t the guts to own their abuse and attacks.
  • The Professionals. People like me who have to adopt a pseudonym as to separate work life from personal life.
  • Comedy Accounts. Either fake celebrities / politicians or fake departments that are funny (eg. Rudd 2000) or not (most of the others)

The problem is, many on Twitter, especially journalists, are wary of people who adopt pseudonyms and assume that all of them are in the coward category. It’s also a convenient cover if such people are losing arguments, I’ve found. “You’re just an anonymous troll, why should I respond to you?” is a common response from such people. You will also find that most media organisations will not publish work by someone who prefers to use a pseudonym, which makes it hard for people who might want to write about something for such outlets, but may feel constricted by their workplace’s social media policy.

This does mean, however, that people with a pseudonym have to find other ways of expressing themselves, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. People wishing to go down my path, however, should be aware of these limitations and perceptions.

Pitfall Five – The “Enemies”

I found it interesting the image that people had of me on Twitter – opinions were formed because they didn’t see my image or had not met me. If that was a negative image, it was near impossible to shift it, which did annoy me.  There were people out there who considered themselves my enemy.

There were a number of reasons why I had these people who didn’t like me, in retrospect. First of all, in my time of having the account, I became a Greens supporter and tweeted support for their policies and criticism of the policies of other parties. I did, however, also tweet criticism of some Greens policies because I’ll never be an entirely partisan warrior – I can’t make myself into that.

I also did say quite a few silly and wrong things, made many mistakes. In addition, because I had developed a fairly sizeable ego in my time with the account, I found it hard to back down and admit to a mistake, especially if I knew that people would crow over me for having admitted a mistake. Sometimes, for people, Twitter is a Win / Lose game, when really, I have realised, it shouldn’t be.

A classic case of the concept of creating enemies was when a Labor supporter with some 6,000 followers decided that he loathed me enough that he created a parody account. This paraody account gained followers that had tweeted insults towards me for some time – mostly Labor supporters. I naturally was both appalled and fascinated. Essentially, I could tell that through what he was tweeting, he decided that I was the following:

  • A “social climber” because I criticised “bogans” in the community that on the one hand were accepting middle class welfare and on the other were criticising poor welfare recipients and asylum seekers. Apparently, however, criticising people like that showed that I was actually a bogan but pretending otherwise (?)
  • Pretentious because I tweeted support for Australia microbrewers
  • Pretentious because I liked the cricketer Ed Cowan because not only was he a good player, but also intelligent
  • An unoriginal plagiariser because I deconstructed the articles of others in my blog
  • Pretentious because I supported the Greens and never criticised them

Some of the tweets were pretty nasty and I was initially offended and wanted to call him out for his ways. I was also hurt that there were many Twitter users I liked and respected that were following him and clearly enjoying his work. It was made clear to me by other, wiser users, however, that the calling out wasn’t necessary or would be a particularly good look for me. In addition, it was becoming clear to me that he would see that biting back as a victory. As a result, I looked at the account with a more circumspect attitude. I realised that he quickly ran out of material and so mostly used the account to retweet more pictures of an awkward Tony Abbott with some words scrawled on them. I was feeling in the end that I could have done a much better job satirising me, possibly because he had stopped reading my tweets sometime back in 2011.

Pitfall Six – Ego and the Hip Tweeps

When you gain more than a thousand followers – some of who are people you see on TV, read in the paper and the like, you run the risk of developing an oversized ego. Well, I ran the risk and did develop such an ego. I still saw myself as some teacher from nowhere who was suddenly being listened to and having my tweets appear on all sorts of TV and radio shows. It made me arrogant and big headed often, when I look back at it.

As a result, I would be easily hurt / offended / affronted if interesting people with similar follower counts to me wouldn’t respond to me or follow me back. I realise now that this was fairly egotistical and narcissistic of me, especially in terms of people following back. The non-responding thing irked me for longer, because I thought it was rude. I always responded back to people who were friendly or had some intelligent criticism to offer. I just think social media is social, not a soap box or broadcast platform. In addition, I’m just some person in the street, just like the people responding to me.

I realise now that it’s the same thing with Twitter as it is in any public place, be that a school playground or workplace. There’s the hip ones with their own language and ways of being and the rest of us on the outside, observing or – even better, finding our own cool people to be with. The main difference is that ones who consider themselves hip will not respond to those considered to be worth chatting to.   I see this now as an integral part of Twitter and I would suggest to anyone considering a time on general Twitter to not really worry about expecting polite and respectful attitudes from a range of people – more be pleasantly surprised if people do respond to you in a genuine and warm manner.

There’s also a cautionary note about making comments about the more widely known hip members of Twitter – there’s a strong possibility that you might attract a bit of negative attention from their friends and admirers. I experienced this first hand a number of times, but once with a quite strong reaction.

There was a time when I ran for local council, for a variety of reasons, mostly as a favour to the local Greens, because there weren’t a lot of people putting their had up for the opportunity. Plus, I thought it would be an interesting process. It was, but I wasn’t too devastated that I didn’t win – I knew that I was a very low profile candidate and wasn’t driven by a desire to become an elected politician. I met politicians during the campaign and did not want to become a smile, a title and a shake of the hand. I did somewhat regret not winning on one level, though – my father wanted to be a councillor – he was driven by a desire to help local people, but he didn’t want to join a political party in order to get in – he wanted to be an independent. It was one of those things we never got to plan, however, with his death at the age of 69. The council election brought those thoughts back to me, especially as during the campaign, my mother passed on.

I was going through this mixture of regret, mourning, pain and relief when one night I questioned an assertion by one of the more hip members of Twitter. He bit back with a set of insults relating to the size of my defeat in the council election. A friend of his came in too and twisted the virtual knife with comments about my loss. Considering that I didn’t make reference to my campaign on Twitter – I was always very careful to separate my real self from my pseudonymous self – I was shocked and a bit wounded. It opened up a range of buried thoughts and feelings I had managed to suppress in relation to the election, including those related to my father. It didn’t help that I could not respond without getting insulted more, or have another person come in – the girlfriend of the second insulter – to justify and defend the actions of the other two. So I just gave up, blocked them all and almost walked away from Twitter altogether.

I know it all sounds a bit low level and minor now – and I probably overreacted at the time. But I did not want the virtual character to have an impact on what I was doing in my real life. I also knew I could not really explain myself and felt vulnerable and it was a deeply unpleasant experience. It also made me resentful towards the first person, who was widely liked and respected on Twitter. That made him pretty much invulnerable for public criticism, as I discovered at a later stage, when, after making a criticism in a conversation to someone else, one of his supporters (who did not follow me nor had ever talked to me) publicly rebuked and insulted me in a flurry of nasty tweets. These tweets were later Storified and laughed about by others. Any response from me was belittled and laughed at by a number of people. It was pretty horrible and there seemed to be no-one willing to support me publicly against the attacks.

It was, however, a useful experience because it taught me the wisdom involved with assessing who it is that are pretty much impervious to criticism and also the worthiness of picking one’s battles. I also learnt later from others that they had had similar problems with “pile-ons” from various people who were friends on and off Twitter.

Eventually, however, as with many Twitter storms, it was all settled as the originator of the insult apologised to me in person some 18 months after and was genuine in his regret. It didn’t take me much time to accept it – I knew it wasn’t all that big a deal, it was a throwaway line from him and he didn’t have a clue about what I was going through away from Twitter. That is one of the bigger pitfalls of things like Twitter arguments – we don’t know oftentimes what is going on in the lives of people away from the screens and perhaps we do more damage with offhanded comments than we can ever know.

The ultimate pitfall is the battle one does with any anxiety that can build up with any social interaction that requires responses from people that you don’t see physically. While that form of interaction has many, many upsides (which I will be covering in the next part), it does leave you vulnerable to the perception of being judged by an unseen Snark Squad, ready to put you down for not being hip enough. That is why one should be prepared for a bit of ego battering and battles with anxiety along the way. As I will explore in the next post, it’s worth the slings and arrows.

Part 5. The Upside and Glories of Everyday Twitter

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