Taking on the Twitterati

2011-08-11 00:00

VERASHNI Pillay, the Mail & Guardian’s online columnist, was the first to identify the trend. “There is a new craze on Twitter,” she wrote. It is “the racially charged, impossible-to-answer question. Throw it at a public figure and watch them squirm.”

Social networking in cyberspace is reshaping our world in general and our politics in particular. Twitter makes it possible for anyone anywhere to ask a question on anything of anyone — and expect an instant reply.

When I signed up for Twitter, a colleague warned me: “Don’t be tempted to answer questions on this medium. If you do, you will be on a treadmill from which you cannot alight.”

The best advice is usually recognised in hindsight, after you have ignored it. In politics, the more accessible you are, the more accessible you are expected to be. And this is multiplied many fold on Twitter.

For the uninitiated, Twitter is similar to an SMS. In fact, when I first became one of the “tweeple”, I made the mistake of using it in the same way. But there is a huge difference. Instead of sending your message to one person, you send it simultaneously to everyone who follows you. And each one of your followers can ask you a question, retweet your answer to their followers, who re-tweet it to theirs, ad infinitum. In mathematics, it’s called geometric progression. And many people then start to follow you in order to ask questions.

But volume is not the major problem. The biggest challenge is length — or the lack of it. An entire message, including spaces and punctuation, is limited to 140 characters. It is possible to ask a complex question in 140 characters, but usually impossible to answer it adequately. Inadequate responses generate many complex misinterpretations (often deliberate) that multiply stratospherically through cyberspace. This makes Twitter the perfect medium for provoking and spreading moral outrage, reinforcing prejudices, and driving personal agendas.

When followers become accustomed to receiving answers, a non-response often generates even greater outrage. Lose-lose. In politics, the no-win situation creates a perfect gap for your opponents. They take it instantly.

This is what sparked the trend Pillay spotted. When a celebrity like Simphiwe Dana joins in, the trend becomes a craze.

Dana is an acclaimed musician and actor who has been bitten big-time by the Twitter bug. She is one of the Twitterati who does running social and political commentary, usually presenting her assumptions as facts. Her target last week was the DA, the Western Cape and the city of Cape Town. Her assumptions were: (1) that Cape Town is the most unequal city in the country; (2) that the DA is not interested in addressing the problem; and (3) that the DA opposes economic empowerment.

Every one of those assumptions is wrong. But when Dana got going, the “racially charged, impossible-to-answer” questions rolled in. The DA was attacked for everything from street children to unequal education and the failure of affirmative action. I worked hard at resisting the temptation to res­pond.

This generated the next wave of tweets from people (I’m tempted to call some of them twits) demanding answers, often using racially charged invective. Eventually, Dana tweeted at me: “You keep ignoring my questions. Next thing you’ll be begging me for a vote. What are you doing on Twitter if you avoid questions?”

I took the bait and replied: “We have excellent policies to grow the economy + create jobs — the only sustainable way to redistribute wealth + beat poverty.”

This opened the floodgates. I let the wave roll over me until Dana took the interaction to the next level, urging her 5 400-plus followers to retweet her message “If you live in Cape Town and have to suffer racism at work.”

I then suggested that people retweet the message if they lived anywhere in South Africa and had to suffer racism at work “whatever colour you are”.

Dana then moved on to her next theme: “It’s interesting that the DA has a policy of protecting their donors, but @helenzille won’t let Malema do the same.”

To which I replied: “There is a big difference between illegal bribes to an individual and legal donations to a political party.”

Fortunately, I then had to go to a function and could let the Twitter tsunami continue without me. I noted the next morning that @simphiwedana had more than met her match in @LindiMazibuko, who coined the magnificent phrase “Twitter slacktivists” for those who use the medium to hurl abuse to advance their political agendas.

The debate ended when @LindiMazibuko appropriately announced: “Anyway. Bored now.”

Analysing this interaction, Pillay hit the nail on the head: “Reducing critical matters of our national debate to 140 characters is silly at best and devious at worst. Asking an extremely sensitive question of a high-profile leader on a platform such as Twitter sets them up for failure. If they try to answer within the medium, the questioner will immediately vilify them for not doing the question justice or evading the real issue. If they do not answer they are attacked for not answering to the people. Damned if they do, harassed if they don’t.”

Anyway. Bored now.

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