this has been written very quickly in the last hour as a reaction to something, I will probably rewrite it or at least read through it and republish later, but you can proof read and enjoy all my errors if you would like. (Hmm, I bet I spelt ‘their’ as ‘there’ once, shame awaits)
The internet is a fabulous new library of Alexandria and a squalid cellar of photocopied hate pamphlets and damp pornography. According to some book or other I read, Alexander the Great insisted that any ship that arrived in Alexandria must hand over any documents, books or scholarly works that it had on it so that they could be copied and placed in the library. The library would become the greatest gathering of knowledge in the world at that time, and it would be many centuries after is sacking before such a resource would exist again. Those who have seen Carl Sagan’s Cosmos will know the story of how the library was destroyed by St Cyril and it’s chief librarian, Hypatia, was flayed to death. The internet is the modern version, but also contains anything kept under a saucy sailor’s bunk, some off mackerel from a barrel and anything lewd carved into the hull of the ship by a rampant carpenter.
The instant availability of information, as well as instant access to individuals, does come with some minor costs. When information is printed in a book, one imagines that there has been rigorous work done to ensure that it is true or that at least there is enough evidence to argue its truth, though this may not always be the case. To publish on the internet, as my blog clearly demonstrates, sometimes only haste and intent is required. As I warn at the beginning of my current tour, “if I say anything of interest about science, do not share it with your friends until you have googled it first”. And one search is not enough. We now know certainty is rarely possible, but one internet source is surely not enough to sit comfortably with any information.
The instant access to people is where the other issue rears up. Getting into the driver’s seat of a car is said to dehumanize us, though I wouldn’t know as I have never taken the risk, fearing that my small amount of humanity may not remain intact if I attempted driving. As the container of a car can turn someone into a skin/metal Robocop of abuse and ire, so the solitary yet highly social internet can turn humans into poison pen scribblers and gleeful guillotine watchers. Once you are writing to someone who is an avatar or maybe only a font, once we no longer have to eye people during conversation, all social niceties can be thrown aside. The sober can behave like angry drunks without the expense of Greek brandy. Sometimes a little Metaxa may get in the system anyway and people too drunk to talk can still type, if not spell, at 3am. It can be the virtual, anti- “you’re my best mate” syndrome.
The hardest thing to maintain as all the colours and sound of the internet swamp you in your bedroom is that you may still be talking to a human being, even if you normally would feel uncomfortable doing that in your current attire of underpants and an old Depeche Mode T shirt, surrounded by digestive crumbs and dried body detritus. To my eyes, Twitter can be the worst place for dehumanization. When I first received vivid abuse I was taken aback. I am not particularly well known and, as James Delingpole has described me in one if his articles about how unfair it is that I have made a joke about him, I am “a minor comedian”. I am so easily avoidable it was a shock to find out I had crept enough into someone’s consciousness that they felt they must express their loathing. As time has progressed, I realize some people might seek me out as I can be a little bolshy and facetious at what I see as pseudoscience and I can seem a little left wing at times. The first abuser came across like a character from Marat/Sade with a hint of that man in Silence of the Lambs who said he smelt Jodie Foster. Intrigued and worried, I look at his other tweets and saw that I had ended up on a list of people to abuse that include Katie Price , Jimmy Carr and John Prescott. I think I replied to that person with something about wishing death upon them in a grain vat, but in a jovial manner. I am now used to the odd direct insult and will either ignore and block, or send a jolly “you are a cheeky little thing” reply, and then block. Smiling in the face of extreme abuse and adopting an airy manner is something I learnt during my first appearance at the Belfast Empire.
The most unpleasant way of using tweeter is not the direct spit in the face, but the “I know you are here, and I am going to demean you without looking in your eye”. This is the “ had a great weekend, only ruined by seeing that unbearably shit @robinince”
This seems to me cowardly and gloating with a hint of the playground bully about it. Some people know what they are doing, but as I have found out lately, other people really don’t see what is wrong. Oddly, it seems some are not doing it to hurt or provoke. This morning a friend of mine retweeted a comment which said “I found @???’s talk disappointing” etc. I ended up in conversation with the tweeter. He defended himself by saying he was opening up discourse, but I explained that opening up discourse is “@????? I was at your talk last night and was disappointed by what I saw as a continual category error”. I then asked him if he would be comfortable in a circle of people, where you are loudly criticizing in the third person someone in that circle. He considered it was not the same, but to me, it is very, very similar. This person is not a less human, less feeling version of themselves because they are now on the internet.
I have failed at this many times myself, but I am trying to get better, learning to be human seems to take ages and new technology provides new challenges. This does not mean you should not engage with people on the internet, that to me is one of its delights, even if it can be uncomfortable at times.it can be interesting to continue to receive feedback about work beyond my conversation with audience members at the bar afterwards. Sometimes it can be worrying and sometimes it can lead to rethinks and rewriting. I have been accused of being a twitter bully by two different Telegraph bloggers in pieces they have written for their high circulation newspapers. Personally, I did not feel I was bullying, I asked a total of four entirely genuine questions about why they held their opinions on certain things they tweeted, to them that was bullying (ad hominem attacks in the newspapers are apparently not of their writing is anything to go by).
When one made an appearance in Horizon that many people felt was rather poor, I wrote to people who I knew who were including his twittername in the general ribaldry and suggested that might stooping a little. Then he wrote another piece about the minor comedian who was so cruel to him for doing a joke.
In stand up I have tried to get better at avoiding the ad hominem attack. I wonder what I would feel uncomfortable saying if someone I was joking about was in the room. In my current show I believe there is nothing I would skip because hopefully the intention behind the joke is more than just laughing in someone’s face (more of that should I ever get around to writing a blog on that popular topic of offensive comedy)
I attempt to keep my abuse jovial and informed. There are things I said about Melanie Phillips, yes even Melanie Phillips, that I would feel far from comfortable saying on stage now (even though the imagery was a reasonably joyful fusion of the works of John Waters and David Cronenberg).
In stand up and on the internet I try to maintain empathy, but that doesn’t mean I won’t fail from time to time, or even frequently.
Empathy is an impressive achievement in any species, it is what can raise us above some of the other animals that fuck and kill and just survive. I imagine it has always been a battle to attain and maintain empathy, but in the comfort some of us are lucky enough to have, and I would hope pretty much anyone who has the time and access to technology that reading this blog requires has enough comfort, empathy needs to thrive. The internet is a playground and a library, but it also has the potential to be bedlam cage. We should aspire to be more like Hypatia than St Cyril.
Carl Sagan on the Library of Alexandria http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jixnM7S9tLw
for an alternative viewpoint on twitter abuse, bullying etc you can find a discussion on the http://www.cookdandbombd.co.uk/ forum
Also, I continue my tour of Happiness Through Science soon – upcoming dates include Swindon, Exeter, Oxford, Lincoln and Birmingham. I will be doing to Bad Book Club shows too, Sheffield and Saffron Walden. Plus a few Angry shows with Michael Legge starting at Norwich. http://www.robinince.com for details
If you leave a comment in the next few days I will be unable to approve or reply, but will do so on 9/09/12 time permitting
 As I was writing this I received a tweet telling me Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation was available online, it is indeed an amazing place this internet.
 My definition of being truly comfortably off is being able to shop in a supermarket and not keep looking at the prices of each item wondering if it is affordable.