As we are in the heart of summer, the height of “silly season” (as I’ve seen it referred to by members of the British press) during which members of the Royal family take their summer break and decrease their number of engagements, and Kate continues her maternity leave, I think it is time that we turn our attention to our own community and cast an eye on recent changes that have taken place.
In other words, what on earth is going on with members of the Kate-watching community? The recent uptick in hostility on Twitter, in the comments on various blogs, in the flat-out nasty comments on articles posted to newspaper websites is noticeable and, frankly, shocking. Now, I’ve written several times of my firm belief in the value of diverse opinions and the importance of being able to express those opinions. I further hope that I’ve demonstrated that I myself hold diverse opinions on the Duchess of Cambridge and the Royal family – sometimes I agree with decisions that are made, sometimes not – and that you, as readers, are welcome to agree with me or not. Most importantly, I believe that however disagreement or debate is expressed, it is expressed politely.
But I’m not here to mother you or rap your knuckles with a ruler like a stern teacher – instead, let’s try to figure out what’s happened in our community that has led to such a dramatic increase in aggression over such a short period of time. In my thoughts about the root causes of the problem, I’ve come up with three potential sources that might have triggered, or at least worked together, to generate an environment that led to this outbreak in hostility.
The Beast that is Twitter
A large part of the increased anger seen in our community is fueled, in part, because of the medium through which we often communicate. Twitter is a wonderful communication tool and an AWFUL one. Twitter allows people from all over the world communicate instantaneously, in real time, about whatever topics they wish. Twitters allows people to share images, small videos, and links, and then connects them all via hashtags – a truly brilliant system.
But what is lost in translation? Facial cues and, most importantly, TONE. A tweet (complete with emojis or punctuation) fails to convey what the author feeling. For example, what is the feeling behind this sentence:
“No. I don’t see how you can say her dress is green. The company said it’s teal.”
Is the writer simply being factual? Rude? Snide? Questioning? Confused? Who knows? Without facial cues or vocal tone, we have no idea. However, as a reader, we make a snap decision and react based on that decision. So, if a reader decides that the writer is being rude, they then respond in a hostile manner. I cannot tell you how many exchanges on Twitter I’ve seen in this pattern, in which a tweet is interpreted as being rude or snide (and sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t) and then it sparks an aggressive response. The original writer then feels attacked and either attacks in return or accuses the responder of “bullying” and it all goes downhill from there. And this pattern happens over and over and over again.
Another problem with Twitter are the “Favorite” and “Block” buttons – good ideas in theory, problematic in usage. As social scientists are discovering, we favorite what we like and agree with, and we block what we dislike and disagree with, leaving us with very polarized feeds. In other words, my Twitter feed becomes a list of people who think and act just like me, and who always agree with me – a bunch of sycophants, if you will, with no one to possibly change or challenge my point of view. The “Block” button become a tool with which to threaten people, so that, instead of working out disagreements, now we can simply refuse to ever speak to them again (in psychology, this is called ‘stonewalling’ and is the very definition of passive aggressive, unhealthy conflict behavior). In essence, Twitter allows us to run away from conflicts and to stay within our own little cliques of like-minded people who do not challenge our world-views. Now you can see how Twitter allows hostility to increase: by permitting users to escape disagreements, we never learn conflict resolution. All users learn how to do is pick fights, and then run away.
Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen?
Next, it has come to my attention that, prior to the recent increases in anger and belligerence in this community, the Kate-watching contingent has noticeably grown. There has been a marked increase in people actively tweeting and blogging about their thoughts and experiences about Kate. More people are hosting blogs about the Duchess of Cambridge, more people are engaging in discussing on those blogs about Kate, and more people are sharing news and photographs about Kate. Of course, all of this leads to more people sharing opinions and disagreements about Kate.
Now, is this a bad thing? Of course not! I think that the increase in social media use and blogging about Kate is wonderful. The personal benefits of social media are enormous – a creative outlet, a social outlet, a way to hone journalistic, writing, and photographic skills, etc. However, there are potential downsides, and I think the increased aggression is linked to at least one of them. One of the most notable downsides to all of this creative work is that we as humans become attached to our work. We place pride and a sense of self into our work – which is all fine and good, until someone comes along and disagrees with it or says that we have done something wrong. Then, not only is our work “wrong” but our pride has become threatened. It is then that I can easily see that any one of us become aggressive, defensive, angry, and hostile. Trust me when I say that many a doctoral dissertation has never been finished because of this very problem!
Lack of Clarity
The third root source of the increased hostility that I have identified is connected to the previously mentioned sources, and that is that there is a general lack of clear guidelines within our Kate community. Part of this, I think, is due to the fact that our communication mediums are Twitter and several blogs. Let’s look at each in turn.
Twitter certainly has guidelines regarding postings (posts are limiting to 140 characters, how to post links, etc), but recent hostilities within our community have centered around incredibly important issues of journalistic ethics: the proper sourcing of information and copyrighting of information and photographs. Anger over these issues then turns into harassment and bullying, which has turned our Kate community into a somewhat unpleasant place to tweet/blog. But, what are the rules on Twitter about attributing credit? What are the rules about copyrighted images? What are the rules about harassment? Bullying? Libel (knowingly writing false statements about another to discredit them)? What are the rules about adding watermarks to photographs? How about removing watermarks? Do you have to identify your sources when asked? Who do you even ask about rules in general? Most importantly, who gets to make the rules? Until these questions have definitive answers from the Kate community as a whole, tweeting can be risky business.
The different Kate-centric blogs, such as WWKD, all feature comment sections that foster the exchange of ideas, communication, and discussion. It’s amazing to see people gathering together to share common interests and debating the various topics that come up in the diverse postings. I make it a point to read as many of the blogs as I can, as I want to get a sense of our entire Kate community and to appreciate the hard work of all the contributors. Most blogs are run by one administrator (many of whom also work outside of blogging), who is in charge of posting material and who are also in charge of moderating (approving) comments. Some blogs have comment sections in excess of 300 comments per post, so moderating these comments for publication (i.e. ensuring that all comments are polite, aren’t bullying, are on-point, aren’t repetitive, etc.) is an incredible amount of hard work – and a virtually impossible job for one person.
Beyond the sheer unfeasibility of approving all comments, it’s proven very difficult to create guidelines establishing what is and what is not acceptable to post within the comment section on blogs. For example, what I would consider a rude comment might not be something you consider to be rude. So, should the comment be posted? We also run into the problem, as seen on Twitter, that again we lose facial cues and tone in blog comments, so sometimes comments can be misinterpreted to be more hostile than they really are. Again, as a blog moderator, do you allow the questionable comment to be posted or not?
Blogs also need to make a decision as to the content of their comments. Blogs establish an identity and find their niche – some blogs are more known to be “Kate-friendly,” while another might not be as much. Does that mean certain blogs don’t allow “Kate-friendly” comments? Or do other “Kate-friendly” blogs not allow any “Kate-criticism” (even if politely expressed)? Blog guildelines need to address not only comment tone and behavior, but also content, while also honoring the fact that we are all individuals with different, valued opinions – an incredible challenge.
Lastly, another addition to this mix is that fact that our community continues to grow daily. New members, new blog readers, new commenters, new bloggers all join our community in an organic, unpredictable fashion. Whatever guidelines are agreed upon in our community need to not inhibit this growth but to welcome it, as well as to foster creativity, stimulate discussion, and embrace diverse opinions, cultures, and worldviews. This is no easy task, but a necessary one.
What to Do
So, after this [disheartening] description of our current state of affairs, what can we do about it?
On July 2nd, @WWKD_Official tweeted a note regarding the “competitive stance” recently seen in the Kate community (I can take no credit for any of this work – I saw it for the first time when it was tweeted). The end of the note asked for an open discussion with the Kate community as to “how can we create a supportive, encouraging, happy online forum?”
Here is your task, members of the Kate community! Our community has been diagnosed with increased hostility and aggression due to problematic communication styles and a lack of clear guidelines. What is your prescription? Please tweet WWKD at @WWKD_Official or tweet me personally at @DrChristinaLV to share your ideas.