Oh, for the love of Twitter

Why oh why won't anyone learn that Twitter is a veritable hotbed of PR disaster?

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
4 min read

Why oh why won't anyone learn that Twitter is a veritable hotbed of PR disaster?

(Credit: Michelle Starr/CNET Australia)

If you spend any time on the internet, you may have noticed this Twitter drama that unfolded last week — and, like all PR dramas that take place in the public eye, it was doomed from the start.

You should go there and read it, because I'm not going to repeat the entire thing, but the short version goes thus:

Online self-professed geek community Geeklist posted a video by Design Like Whoa of a model dancing around in a Geeklist T-shirt and undies. Not the most tasteful thing I've ever heard of, and certainly something that would make me think twice about whether the community was actually a welcoming space for women.

Shanley Kane, an engineer at distributed database company Basho, thought something similar, and was not shy about letting Geeklist know. She tweeted Geeklist co-founders Christian Sanz and Reuben Katz, saying, "@csanz @rekatz please take it down, it's f-king gross".

The result was an exercise in How Not to PR, with Sanz and Katz zeroing in on her tone (also known as a tone argument), involving Kane's employer, calling her professionalism into question, trying to turn it back on Kane with a (mistaken) accusation that she enjoys looking at scantily-clad men and then declaring themselves the voyagers of the higher road for not swearing.

All in all, it was a pretty disastrous handling of something that could have — and should have — been resolved quickly. Ultimately, Geeklist did remove the video and issued an apology, but many feel that it was too little, too late.

But did Sanz and Katz have a point?

It's a tricky question. I'm a big believer in politeness always being the first course of action. I don't think there is much to be gained by immediately putting someone on the defensive, and when you're — essentially — accusing someone of a bigoted act, coming out fists swinging isn't the best way to get that person to work with you.

On the other hand, telling women they must be meek and polite, to calm down, is also a hazardous thing to do. It smacks of trying to box us up in a subservient gender role; it tells us that we don't have the right to get angry; and it fails to address whatever issue is actually at hand.

These are muddy waters covered by thin ice over a minefield.

But let's think about this for a minute. Say it was a man who had objected to a video of a man dancing around in underpants. Would the internet still be rallying behind his cause? Or if the respondents had been two women?

Either way, the immediate aggressive demands, followed by the lengthy derailment and failure to address the issue: both are at fault for a nasty argument that could easily have been avoided with a bit of respectful communication on an equal level.

Is this is what you're looking for when you enter the Twittersphere, though? The medium itself is rife with problems. Although Kane had met with Sanz and Katz in person in the past, it's much easier to act in a certain way from behind the safety and comfort of a keyboard. Were they talking face-to-face (or even in a more private email setting), it is doubtful the dialogue would have started with "it's f-king gross"; or that Sanz and Katz would have said, "Oo-er, I'm telling your boss on you!"

The medium itself is flawed — the 140-character limit leaves little room for nuance, and the absence of vital non-verbal cues present in face-to-face communication leaves a lot of room for misinterpretation and offence. Coupled with keyboard warrior syndrome, it's all too easy to let disputes devolve into a hot, angry mess where nothing gets resolved.

This isn't a problem that's going to go away, either. You can't make people behave with civility; it has to be something that we want to do, and it seems that, once removed from the social conventions we observe when dealing with each other in person, when the other person is represented by words on a screen and thus dehumanised, empathy and kindness often fly right out the window.

But when you attack someone via a computer, they're still a person and they're going to get defensive. Gender politics is particularly volatile ground, and you won't win allies if you make the other side feel attacked. This doesn't mean you have to be meek and subservient — but it does mean that, if you want to be treated as an equal, perhaps you should start by treating other people the same way yourself.

As a woman, it's hard not to get angry sometimes. Sometimes it does feel as though everything's against you. And it can be really satisfying to hammer angrily at a keyboard, forgetting that there's another human being on the other side. That doesn't mean that we're absolved of responsibility for treating our fellow humans as we ourselves would like to be treated. Or, as a very wise man once said, "Be excellent to each other".

We are capable of communicating without cussing and threatening each other's jobs.

But if we absolutely must do so, for the love of God, don't do it on Twitter.