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What turns us into twits on Twitter and fools on Facebook?

Social media has offered great advances to the world. It has also thrown up more than its fair share of controversies.

Facebook photo

Most of which surround people who should really count to 10 and think hard before tweeting or filling in their Facebook status.

Yesterday the News & Star reported how Carlisle United midfielder Liam Noble could face disciplinary action from club bosses after describing a Sunderland fan on Twitter as a “mong”.

Today we report on Stagecoach bus driver Dave Taylor, who is being investigated for referring to passengers as “paying cattle” on his Facebook page.

The celebrity world is full of examples of Twitter twits and Facebook foul-ups.

Today, Sheffield United have suspended reserve player Connor Brown over insults he posted on Twitter about a rape victim.

Another footballer, serial tweeter Joey Barton is never shy from speaking his mind, often landing himself in hot water.

Troubled Irish singer Sinead O’Connor told her thousands of Twitter followers that she was “ill and in danger”, which is said to have led to the split with her husband.

Comedian Ricky Gervais was at the centre of his own Twitter storm for the same reason Liam Noble finds himself in trouble.

The disabled community rounded on Gervais when he used the word “mong” in a tweet.

But The Office star responded by criticising “the humourless PC brigade” and claimed: “The modern use of the word ‘mong’ means ‘dopey’ or ‘ignorant’.

Put a foot wrong on Twitter and you could find yourself with thousands of abusive messages fired your way.

So why is it that many of us are happy to use the new social networking sites without always thinking through the consequences?

According to county psychiatrist Dr Mark Hoelterhoff, it’s because it’s a way of communicating that we haven’t quite adapted to yet.

Dr Hoelterhoff, senior lecturer in applied psychology at the University of Cumbria, explains: “People are used to communicating with one or two people at a time, having a gossip or complaining about something.

“Now you can talk to thousands of people around the world at once – and what we sometimes don’t realise is that you have to be much more careful in a public forum.

“It’s normal for students to have a moan about their lecturers or their workloads, for example. But there’s a difference between gossiping to a couple of other students and posting it on a social networking site – then it can border on slander. That’s a danger we need to get used to.

“Younger people sometimes fall into the trap of writing something on Twitter and saying ‘That’s just the way I talk.’ But there have to be standards of acceptability in a public forum that you don’t need in a private forum.”

Of course tweets and Facebook postings aren’t always slanderous, offensive, threatening or controversial – just downright boring.

The exciting news that someone has opened a window in the office, or has just eaten an apple, are genuine examples of Twitter messages. What makes people want to share these banal details of their life?

To Dr Hoelterhoff it’s a form of egoism. “There are people who brag about how many Facebook friends or Twitter followers they’ve got because it feeds into their need to feel significant. You think you’re a significant person because lots of people are hearing what you’ve got to say.”

Another local psychologist, Prof Cary Cooper, believes a certain sense of powerlessness also has something to do with it.

“Nowadays many people perceive themselves as not having very much influence,” says Prof Cooper, of Lancaster University. “They feel they can have some influence by using social media.

“We feel we have less control over our lives now – that politicians, the European Union, employers are making all the decisions. So we feel a need to express ourselves, to make our point of view heard.

“And we live such instant, frenetic lifestyles that we want a very quick, instantaneous way to do that.

“That’s what Twitter is about.”

That speed and immediacy can be dangerous. Mr Noble and Mr Taylor mightn’t have been in trouble if they hadn’t been able to get their messages out so fast.

It’s almost always good advice, when you feel like saying something angry or bitter, to stop and count to 10 first. Twitter and Facebook can remove the opportunity to do that.

“When we only had snail mail, people would write a letter venting anger about their boss, or the ex who had dumped them, and leave it a while before sending it, or maybe tear it up and write a different letter.

“There was time for reflection. With Twitter and Facebook there isn’t that safety time.

“But now we’ve got that technology and it would be very difficult to put the genie back in the bottle. So we’ve got to be very cautious.”

Until we are more used to these new forms of communication and more aware of their risks, then Prof Cooper feels we need some regulations about their use. He feels that could have helped Mr Noble.

“Football players are young guys who will sometimes have quite emotional reactions, and that can get them into real trouble. So their employers should give some kind of guidance.

“All organisations ought to have guidelines about what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate.”

Dr Hoelterhoff agrees. “When I tweet someone, am I Mark Hoelterhoff – or Mark Hoelterhoff, lecturer at the University of Cumbria?

“If you put something out there in a public forum then it can reflect on your role, so employees need to be very clear about what’s appropriate behaviour.”

However Dr Hoelterhoff advises us not to be too frightened by the likes of Facebook and Twitter. Many of our worries are simply the anxieties that come with all new technology.

And when it’s communications technology in particular, that anxiety is increased. Centuries ago, when the printing press was at the cutting edge of communications, many people were deeply suspicious, believing it to be an instrument of the devil.

“People are sceptical about technology and when it is a new way of putting us in touch with each other people can react with fear. I think you see that reaction today, in all the articles about how spending lots of time on Facebook will lead to an increase in obesity.”

And there are as many benefits as there are drawbacks. “In my work as a psychologist I use it to have conversations with academics in Africa, China or America and keep up with developments in the field.

“A lot of people see it as a way to better themselves, or for income generation.”

Sending messages around the world at the touch of a button also gives more power to the collective elbow of consumers – particularly if they have a complaint.

“If you write to a customer services department, how many weeks will go by before they write back? When you tweet about something that happened they’ll get back to you within minutes.

“You have companies monitoring Facebook and Twitter looking for feedback, to make sure they respond before it becomes too public. That’s a good thing – it increases the level of accountability.”

The ability to get a message out quickly, to thousands of people, can also bring about social change which most of us would regard as positive, adds Prof Cooper.

“If we didn’t have social networking we wouldn’t have had the Arab Spring.”

Have your say

Is someones post on facebook really worthy of news?

Posted by Stifler on 2 May 2012 at 21:25

Ultimate it comes down to Freedom of speech being sensationalized and taken out of context to make a news story!

Ricky Gervais and the two gentleman your paper have put out of work in the last few weeks were merely speaking their minds or having some harmless banter,using terms of generalisation for what they feel mean silly or daft, get off your high horse you sanctomonious windbags!

Posted by Lord of winterfell on 29 April 2012 at 19:43

View all 4 comments on this article

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