Is Twitter the end of small talk?

Recent events on Twitter show it is now time to consider the unintended consequences of our very public online conversations, says Tom Chatfield.

“Action speaks louder than words, but not nearly as often,” wrote the 19th Century author Mark Twain. Although he courted more than his fair share of controversies, Twain lived at a time when public and published words were possessed by a minority. Mere talk – those mundane conversations and concerns his wit so carefully skewered – existed far from worldly words and actions.

Eleven decades after the author’s death, such boundaries are less certain.

Consider just a handful of the cases and controversies currently involving Twitter. Thanks to an allegedlyracisttweet, Manchester United’s Rio Ferdinand has been charged by the Football Association with improper conduct. Legal action is beingbroughtagainstTwitter in the US in order to make it reveal the identity of the person behind a spoof account satirising the chief executive of a newspaper group. British journalist Guy Adams was suspended from using the site following American broadcaster NBC’s complaintsoverhistweeting, although he was reinstated after a public outcry. Ugly, abusive threats to the Olympic diver Tom Daley led to the arrest of a teenager. Twitter’s own chief executive recentlycalled some of the abuse and heckling that takes place on his site “horrifying”. And the US government – among others – has made many hundreds of user information requests to the service for its own reasons.

It feels, as the author and media expert Dan Gillmour recently put it, like “a defining moment for Twitter”. But it’s also a moment in which larger issues of both law and belief are being defined. What freedoms and protections do we owe to each other in this young arena, where even the most casual comments are fleshed with enough permanence to act upon the world? And are our old structures for judging and enforcing these protections remotely up to the job?

‘Menacing character’

Some of the most suggestive recent answers to these questions seem, to me, to be bound up with a tale that Twain himself might have considered exemplary satire: that of the British man convicted of telling a dubiously tasteful joke.

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

Like all the best stories, it begins with a boy and a girl. In January 2010, 28-year-old Paul Chambers was poised to visit his girlfriend in Northern Ireland when he discovered that the UK’s Robin Hood airport was closed due to snow. In frustration, he posted a message under his own name on Twitter. “Crap!” it exclaimed, “Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!”




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