Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo recently admitted in a leaked memo to staff how serious a problem online abuse and trolling on Twitter was, one that the social network has so far failed to tackle.
Certainly the problem of online abuse has been exacerbated by the ease and anonymity of the internet and social networks. But it is not exactly new. Each new communication invention has always brought with it the possibility of carrying cruel as well as kind communiqués – even at this time of year, when tradition dictates the sending of amorous cards for Valentine’s Day.
Over 150 years ago, as literacy rates improved and a universal postal service arrived in many industrialised nations, letter writing and the sending of greetings cards flourished. But with post boxes appearing on street corners it took no great leap of thought to realise it was possible to send an unkind sentiment through the post without the intervening messenger, postal service, nor the recipient knowing who sent it.
And so was born the Vinegar Valentine, the sharper side of an otherwise romantic tradition. Instead of sending a loved one a romantic gesture, people would instead send a vindictive card intended to upset an enemy, colleague, neighbour or friend.
Companies saw the commercial opportunity and caught onto the trend with their own versions. Rather than creating a romantic rhyme there were comically creative with cruel verse, for women and men alike. Cartoonists, greeting card companies and copywriters found an income from this unpleasant predilection.
Before the penny post was introduced, it was the recipient that paid for the letter sent to them. This meant that in a doubly cruel twist, the victims of vinegar Valentines would endure both insult and financial injury. While anecdotal and difficult to prove, there were reports of hapless souls subject to a deluge of these vinegar Valentines and having to bear the financial cost of their ignominy.
It would appear that vinegar Valentines lasted for some considerable time, finally losing their appeal by the 1940’s – an unsavoury 100 years or more of trolling by post.
Two centuries of trolling
Leaping forward to the present day, technology advances but alas it would seem that human nature does not, as the bosses of Twitter, Facebook, Ask.fm and many other online services have discovered.
There have been many incidents of online abuse on Twitter to gain considerable publicity, with many cases in which celebrities as well as those less known have been the subject of trolling campaigns that have eventually forced them off the site.
Better than its postal counterpart, Twitter is free to anyone with internet access, via computer or smartphone. While there are ways to track down and sanction the less techno-savvy trolls, it’s simple to set up an anonymous account, build a following, and make the lives of others a misery.
In addition, with many free Twitter automation services available it’s possible to become utterly unrelenting by bombarding individuals round the clock. Twitter set clear rules for automation, but these are not difficult to abuse if you are inclined.
Where historical vinegar Valentines required a little preparation and were not immediate, today internet trolls using twitter can react to tweets in real time, causing their victims considerable distress.
Unlike with Facebook, by default and by design Twitter is public. While you can protect your tweets, hiding in what is really a broadcast-oriented medium is difficult. Some individuals have been successful in confronting their trolls, while other trolls have discovered that the law is against them, and find themselves at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
Sadly unless Twitter makes it easier for victims to work with police and harder for trolls to hide in anonymity, such abuse will continue. For as long as it’s free and easy to use, it’s also easy to abuse. After all:
Roses are red, violets blue, in under 140 characters I can be nasty to you #vinegarvalentine