Thursday, 8 May 2014

140 Character Assassination - Twitter & the need for precision of language

On Tuesday someone I follow on twitter announced they were leaving having been driven off through tweets received. This blew up really quickly and so I was able to glean very little in the limited time I had access to their timeline before the account was deleted. Being a timeline only of their tweets, I couldn't see what abuse or menace they were on the receiving end, so I could very well have the wrong reason they found their back to the wall. But I think it was over the use of a single word.

The word 'banter' in its original meaning has the sense of light-hearted verbal exchange. Certainly nothing aimed at wounding. But the word has I think developed a bit more edge as it is used as an excuse to defend hurtful barbs. This is particularly true of team sports dressing rooms, where the cut and thrust of banter is perceived as both a team bonding instrument but also a tool for toughening up. The logic running something like if you can't take the competitive asperity of a dressing room, you probably won't be able to survive in professional sports. It's a proving ground of sorts. A verbal assault course that has to be bested. It's a completely non-sensical argument, since a team dressing room is absolutely the place to retain grudges, because you are forced together with people you probably don't like every day with no escape. As to team building, how many soccer clubs banned card schools that were supposed to help bonding, only for the playboy millionaires to have huge gambling debts with team mates that only ruptured any sense of unity? So much is excused as being 'just a bit of banter' and players often claim they love 'a bit of banter' with the crowd, until they lose it and respond with a gesture that lands them in trouble with the governing body, or worse. I don't think Eric Cantona saw it as just a 'bit of banter' when he leapt into the crowd with a karate kick at an opposition fan who had been baiting him.

So the word itself has perhaps become degraded from its original sense. The ex-twitterer didn't even use the word 'banter', but the slang foreshortening of it to 'bants'. I think the tweet was something like "just bants". I was completely unaware of this idiom and had no idea that's what they were referring to. So I went online to look it up in that gospel of idiomatic usage "Urban Dictionary". I saw that 'bants' was just a shortened slangy version of 'banter', perfect for the cramped language use encouraged by 140 characters on twitter. You shave all of a single character by such usage.

But I'm an old hand at referencing "Urban Dictionary". I know full well that there is likely to be more than one interpretation of any slang or idiomatic term or phrase listed there, and indeed validation and veracity are, as is the prescription of our age, voted on as to confirm or reject. Indeed 'bants' has another meaning and I suspect it was this that brought down the opprobrium on the tweeter's head. (As is often the case, there are actually a couple of minor variations on this second meaning, as UD always manages to convey a sense that any verbal explanation has had its vowels and consonants mangled in the telling as is the wont of the generations who speak without moving their upper lip and that the transcription on UD reflects this local and regional variation).

I'm not going to reproduce the alternative meanings, you can look them up yourself if you're so minded, but it seemed apparent to me that here was a difference between a UK English interpretation of the word 'bants' from an American English one, where the words is actually an acronym and its letter 'N' is highly charged as reiterated once again only this very week in the UK by Jeremy Clarkson's grovelling apology for using it and in the US, by a professional sports team owner stirring up the whole race issue with his own players and abdicating his right to own just such a sports team.

I knew neither meaning of the word as indeed I'd never heard the word before. I think it highly likely the tweeter only knew of the UK English one and thus fell foul of an unintended reverberation in its use. Is that a defence? I have absolutely no idea to be honest, in such a fast changing world of slang and idiom it simply isn't possible to stay on top of every single new word and phrase. "Urban Dictionary" being a crowdsourced compendium of such usage only encourages faster coinage of new idioms and all are of course completely unsubstantiated.

But and this is a big but, you put yourself and your opinions out in public on platforms like Twitter, you better be prepared to stand by and back up every word you post. Because if you put stuff out there that you are not in full comprehension of its meanings, shades, imputations, undertones and overtones, then you expose yourself to all manner of challenges. Should those challenges be vicious, insulting and cruel? Of course not, but they will be and possibly more since the current state of both legislation and law enforcement seems totally overwhelmed by the virtual phenomenon. Which brings me back to the dressing room. It's not how I would choose to forge a bonded, united team environment, but at present that is the state of affairs. You stand up and back yourself with a rhinoceros-plated hide, or you go under. It is the same in social media. And getting your language right is a crucial part.


Unknown said...

I am an expert in getting my language wrong. I think social media can withstand misunderstandings, double meanings, divisions of language, culture, time zone and belief. Just as 'IRL' can. But only if people exercise a bit of tolerance and acceptance of other people's way of thinking and expressing themselves.

Sulci Collective said...

Absolutely Elly, I was hoping you'd join in here.

Social media ought to be able to withstand misunderstandings and the like, because they will inevitably occur. And maybe social media will reach such a state of poise and equilibrium, but right now it seems to be a mile off.

Unknown said...

maybe it is something to do with written text being more bald and more permanent than the spoken word, with added gestures, expression etc. I find the analogy of twitter being 'like a pub' completely wrong. you don't tend to have what you said in the pub the night before typed up and recorded verbatim the next morning!

Sulci Collective said...

Written words used to afford the space for reflection and proper digestion. The instantaneity of social media response times has ground that into the dust.

Denise said...

What is said in the pub may not be written down, but you do get that "did you hear what Charlie said last night" syndrome...and the tale grows in the telling, until the next week when George says something equally stupid in the pub and attention is diverted to that for a while. There does seem to be something especially inflammatory about written comments. Perhaps it is that permanence, the comment is there for all to read and fresh outrage at every new reading perpeuates the problem. On the whole I think we have simply lost the ability to hold a considered debate about things. The immediate reaction to anything at all contraversial is genrally one of hysteria. Tolerance is becoming an archaic value.

Sulci Collective said...

all very true Denise but even the written letter of old could be intemperate. Franz Kafka never sent "Letter To My Father" and I also penned several missives to my own Dad which I held back from giving him, as it could always be used in evidence against you!

Denise said...

Ah you see, you considered the consequences of your words and avoided the repercussions. Had you sent them you may have prompted an inflamed response...or you may have had a reasoned discussion. I suspect the former. Very often the character assassinations in SN develop from a chance remark and then the seeming inability of anyone involved to behave in a reasonable manner.