Why do people say stupid things on Twitter?

If you had 140 characters with which to say write something that would be visible across the whole internet, why would you say something petty or offensive? Yet our habits on Twitter, which has 330m users, suggest we often do just that.

Toby Young, journalist, schools pioneer and Twitter abuser, enjoyed a reign shorter than Lady Jane Grey’s before quitting as non-executive director on the board of the new regulatory Office for Students.

His comments about women’s breasts, lesbians, another man’s breath (guess you had to be there) and apparently underworked teachers, ranged from vile to unfortunate-given-his-new-role-involving-students. He has since deleted thousands of tweets, but opponents have treasured up a choice few and republished them. Nothing really dies in cyberspace – except dignity.

Not that Mr Young’s inflammatory output was limited to kneejerk tweets – the suggestion of eugenics for parents on low incomes with below-average IQs comes from an essay; his mocking of the term “inclusivity” in schools, from his column in The Spectator; and his depiction of “vaguely deformed” working-class students at Oxford, which he says has been quoted out of context, appeared in a book.

[UPDATE: In a riposte published on Friday, Mr Young quotes a bioethicist who says that his comments do not contain “anything that is obviously morally beyond the pale”. The “e” word is an attention-grabber, but rightly or wrongly, IVF, which is widely accepted, requires embryo selection based on likeliest viability.]

A combination of online publishing and a vocal younger generation sensitive to offence have made writing pub banter and private thoughts into your copy a dangerous occupation. No longer are your readers a like-minded community whose red lines the editor can, if necessary, locate for you: they could be anyone, anywhere. And the reaction to Young’s most startling quotes – including 220,000 signatures to an epetition to have him sacked – also shows how fragmented is our sense of what it is appropriate to say. (The Spectator this week, far from ditching Young, renamed his column and ran an article lamenting the “digital inquisition” to which he had been subjected.)

jane-austen-wikimedia commons

Any story involving explosions on Twitter makes me yearn for a more elegant age, when a put-down might only comprise “Very well, Mr Withrington” but would chill the recipient more than an industrial freezer. However, as every costume drama shows, such put-downs require not only the icy words, but the resolute intake of breath, the hard stare and the determined hasty exit. Not easy with a handful of letters and cartoon-style emojis that invite you to express yourself using the emotional palette of an eight-year-old.

Perhaps because of this, Twitter has long been a shouty playground far beneath the erudite debating chamber our broadsheets’ comment pages work hard to be. If someone wants to boost their public profile, how else do they make themselves heard? And how do we measure the impact of our missives? Our online platforms – designed by experts in computers not people – are all about figures. Forget hidden or long-term impact:  how many views, visitors, likes, shares? If it isn’t countable, it doesn’t count.

Yet, far from furthering debate and drawing people closer together, access to online publishing has not only lowered the level of discussion people are prepared to engage in – I wonder if it is accustoming people to huddling only with those who share their views, and making people more wary of healthy, moderated debate in the real world: perhaps the “no-platforming” for which the younger generation is gaining a reputation is a response to adolescences of cyberbulling and the pressure to send naked selfies. Unfortunately, their guns are trained on those who have not championed the most recently won rights (gay and trans rights), without regard for veteran campaigners, such as feminists, who question trans rights but laid the foundation for many rights that are now taken for granted.

Commentators such as Mr Young write to provoke reactions. After all, punchy tweets are, at best, more eye-catching and amusing than moderate ones. But while the former work for journalism, they doesn’t work for public office, which is why we won’t hear whether Mr Young had some equally punchy and provocative ideas for the university sector.

I want to give the last word to Ms Austen. How might she have responded (in 140 characters or less) to Mr Young?

“I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine.”

Author: Abigail Frymann Rouch

Abigail Frymann Rouch is a religious and social affairs journalist. She has written for the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Independent, Channel4.com and Deutsche Welle. As a commentator she has appeared on Sky News, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service, BBC World News, and regional radio. For nine years she was foreign editor, then online editor, of The Tablet.

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