02/08/2013 09:25 BST | Updated 01/10/2013 06:12 BST

Generation Troll: Twitter Abuse and Explaining Yourself to Mum and Dad


This week we found out that sending grotesque abuse online isn't that fun when your mum finds out about it.

Seeing as the media debate raging over Twitter abuse and misogynistic online trolling doesn't seem to be abating just yet, I thought I'd stick my oar in.

If you've missed it (you haven't) the current debate has been sparked by some high-profile, particularly repulsive, slurs and threats against Cambridge classicist Mary Beard and Caroline Criado-Perez, who had the audacity to campaign for the Bank of England to really scratch their heads and figure out if there were any notable female personalities in British history who would be worthy of being printed on our money - and perhaps in some way represent half of our population.

But this week we found out that sending grotesque abuse online isn't that fun when your mum finds out about it. And it made me wonder (well it made my brother Alex wonder and I told him I'd give him credit. Job's a good'un.) - how will online behaviour change when all of our parents are online, or rather when we are the parents online?

The anonymity of the internet has long been understood as a green-light for those who want to unleash torrents of offensive bile at others. But while online forums have traditionally been the preserve of the invidious fucktrumpets of the internet, Twitter has brought many trolls out into the light. No longer hiding behind aliases and avatars, they bask in the glory of disdain and disapproval at their actions.

Yet even with their identity known, the distance and disconnect provided by the internet serves to remove the abuser from the scene of the crime (as it were) - and from the impact on the victim. This was made beautifully apparent in the example of Mary Beard's online assailant: image here.

It's a perfect framing of the problem. Very few people who engage in trolling would say or do the things which they tweet if the interactions were in person. And in inserting the corporeal, personal, element of "telling his mum", this intervention succeeds in shattering the illusion of distance. It brings the immediacy of action and consequence into focus: something which is commonplace in everyday life yet totally absent from online interactions.

So: here's a thought experiment. If everyone's parents were on Twitter, if people didn't have to "tell your mum" because she'll see it herself, how would people self-regulate? Will our generation present the first parental panopticon of self-regulation: forcing our children to either behave better in their online encounters or revert to the cloak of anonymity?

Of course people would find other fora to vent their repugnant abuse, but in huge swathes of the internet where people's real identities are known, it could have a genuinely formational effect.

A thought experiment it may be for now, but with many of us adjusting to the dynamics of being Facebook friends with our folks (not mine thankfully, sorry guys) - it may be that my generation is the last to experience a wholly parent-free internet. For some this has meant a domain of recalcitrance against forms of decency they would uphold in any other sphere of life or simply an avenue for hate-filled splurges - one in which joking about raping someone or choking them to death is a thrill in the response it elicits from them and others. Others - with Mum's gaze or not - are thankfully just a bit more reasonable to people.

P.S. I apologise to my Mum for using the term fucktrumpet.