In Praise of Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is one of Britain’s favourite writers. She has been one of my favourite writers for many years, even before Colin Firth took a swim. Jane Austen will soon adorn the 10 pound note, following a campaign to have at least one woman represented on their currency. Hurrah for women. Although I can’t help questioning the selection process. Since it’s replacing a scientist why not Ada Lovelace, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, or Rosalind Franklin? There used to be a woman on the five pound note; she has been replaced by Winston Churchill. So how about a woman politician or campaigner; Emmeline Pankhurst, Nancy Astor or Margaret Thatcher?

But Jane it will be, a somewhat innocuous choice. Although Austen scholars and fans the world over are disheartened by the choice of image and quote.

It turns out that this decision is more controversial and in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Those who campaigned to have a woman on the notes have been challenged on twitter with the most foul language. Including threats of rape and death. The UK police have taken the threats seriously, and already made arrests. Other twitter users have taken the side of the campaigners – to see their supportive reactions check the hashtag #shoutback.

The debate has moved on; there’s now a campaign to get twitter to make reporting abuse easier. There’s a debate about whether it’s really possible to monitor twitter and act on abusive tweets (which are outside twitter’s terms and conditions). There’s a debate on free speech and a discussion . Looking at those in order;

The campaign sought to get twitter to make it easier to report abuse. Currently you have two options; block the sender, which means you won’t see their tweets but others will, or report spam via a form, which takes a while too long when you’re receiving 50-100 abusive tweets per hour. Twitter has committed to making reporting abuse easier, but it’s not as easy as adding button.

It’s difficult because it can’t be an automatic blocking on the basis of a report, that in itself would be open to abuse. There are more than 100,000 tweets per minute, in a multitude of languages and in every time zones. It’d be difficult to build algorithms to sort out the tweets with issues from those without, as Flashboy discusses. Plus there’s context, there are conversations on twitter with banter that could seem abusive, but are not taken as such by the participants.

For all that Twitter has committed to finding a better way of protecting users from abuse. I guess using a mixture of streamlined reporting and monitoring, there are no specifics announced yet.

You must allow me to express how ardently I believe in the freedom of speech. But your freedom stops at the point where it destroys someone else’s freedom. Most countries, including the US place limits on the right of freedom of speech. You may not incite violence, slander another or threaten someone. Obviously your freedom to tweet does not supersede freedom in law. In this case the law, the UK Police, have taken the threats seriously, conducting investigations and making two arrests.

So what is in the minds of the people making these tweets? Where does the anger come from? The threats went on for days, that’s some serious anger.

I think the perceived anonymity of twitter is a drawcard, some have pointed out to the thin veneer of civilisation the abuse shows, others to the underlying misogyny in our society. It’s not wholly a misogynist issue, there are plenty of abusive tweets for anyone, including GQ. Perhaps the abusers are indeed Austen fans, or at least fans of Northanger Abbey where the narrator states;

A woman, especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.

We’re still reading Jane Austen’s works almost a hundred years after she died. I suspect the abusers will leave no such legacy.

Image: Jane Austen to Feature on Bank Notes  |  Bank of England  |  BY ND 2.0

Confession; I was a troll

In my (internet) youth I was a troll, I did it for fun.

I’d pick a cryptic handle such as birds_of_paradox, and tease the other regulars on a forum. I once posed as Mrs_God to counter-troll an unpleasantly bossy Mr_God. I wasn’t ever nasty or abusive, OK maybe occasionally a low grade of mean. So for me it was adopting an anonymous handle and teasing a bunch of people. I’ve moved on, most of the stuff I post on the internet now is in my own name.

Of course I’ve encountered more sinister forms of trolls; some were simply out to challenge political views, some would play devil’s advocate against whatever the discussion was, some posted irrational statements to draw attention to themselves, some posted porn images deceptive titles, and there was the inevitable Rickrolling. I’ve even had one troll want to meet me. Er, no thanks.

But those were the good old days. Trolling seems to have gone high octane, with certain twitter posts including threats to a celebrity or their family, an Olympic athlete was abused via twitter last year, and this year’s Women’s Wimbledon champion was abused for not looking like Sharapova (interestingly a number of those twitterers have now locked or closed their account). The people doing this are using the seeming anonymity of the internet to abuse someone who doesn’t deserve it… seriously; who abuses someone for winning a grand slam tournament?

The meaning of the word has shifted in a second way, it’s not longer about teasing regulars on a forum, or challenging a collective viewpoint, or even getting an angry reaction from a message board. It seems to be used to describe anything that annoys someone somewhere on the internet, including something published by a mainstream news organisation such as the Rolling Stone’s cover photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. As Salon quoted in a recent article;

“People have come to use the word ‘troll’ to mean, ‘It made me angry on the Internet,’” said Doyle. “And that’s pretty broad. It’s a big and noisy Internet.”

The meaning of words changes over time; “nice” used to mean stupid for example (and now you’ll be suspicious if I ever use it to compliment you).

But the problem here is we already have some words that work; in the first case how about “abuse” or “bully”. In the second “provocative”. It was a provocative cover, designed to provoke a reaction or challenge perceptions.

Meanwhile I’ve got some new hobbies – I’ve abandoned my troll bridge.

Any other reformed trolls out there?

Image; Troll