Imagine, if you will, a world without Internet. In this fantasy world, traditional verbal modes of communication have evolved to such a level of complexity and sophistication that there was never any need to invent computer driven textual communications. Instead of the familiar laptop or workstation, there is a sophisticated sort of CB or ham radio in every house and on every desk. Mobile and land telephones are also able to hook into this radio network. There's a catch though. Each utterance on the network can only last a few seconds.
Never mind how, but the radio network has managed to give every end point its own channel, allowing anyone anywhere in the world to tune in as a selective and conscious act. These end points are movable. A person acting as a channel operator can use any radio equipment and it makes no difference to how others tune in to the channel. An operator (who is perhaps good at disguising his voice) can even run several channels at once and others might not know unless he wants them to. A channel operator is also a listener. A listener is merely an operator who is not at that moment speaking.
More than that, any listener/operator can simultaneously tune into any number of others' channels that they like and can easily (within limits) distinguish the source of any information. Channels can tune with each other if those operators like to talk together a lot, and this does not in any way disrupt the ability of other listeners to tune in, but listeners can only hear those parts of the conversation they are either tuned into or that speak directly to them. People need to remember though that others might listen in on their conversations without them knowing. There's a purely private option. Anyone who is tuned into a channel has allowed that channel operator to send them a private voice transmission. If two channels are mutually tuned then the operators can have a private conversation in this fashion.
Private conversations are not typical though. This network grew up with and was empowered by sharing. What began as truckers, police, and ham radio enthusiasts shooting the breeze has evolved into a fully globalised, near instantaneous network of information sharing. It's amazing. Every single utterance is recorded and can be easily retrieved and replayed. The radio understands voice commands and can even search for specific words in the large archive of sound files, not unlike the ship's computer that was imagined for the starship Enterprise. With this truly amazing system, an operator can recall an utterance (the slang for this is "bleat") and can issue the "re-bleat" command, allowing it to be retransmitted with full attribution over his own channel. This helps listeners discover new channels of interest.
I know what you're thinking. But why did I take the time to reconstruct the Twitter social network as a futuristic CB radio system? I did it because I believe that today I discovered where the disconnect lies for people who can't seem to get their heads around why Paul Chambers was never a "troll" and never menaced anyone.
Paul Chambers is of course the man at the heart of the Twitter Joke Trial case, which hears what will hopefully be its last appeal next Wednesday. I and several others close to that case became angry today when we discovered an article detailing abusive online behaviour written for Computer Active magazine. This article referred to Paul Chambers alongside a handful of other internet users in the context of trolling (Paul's reference has now been removed from the online version).
The definition of a troll is given thus: "An internet troll is someone who posts inflammatory and sometimes threatening messages in any web community, such as a forum." I'm not certain but I believe that this definition has been informed by a Wikipedia page on the subject. I contacted the author of this piece and suggested that a troll is rather someone who deliberately engages DIRECTLY with people to cause annoyance. She gave the reply "I would say a troll someone who posts inflamatory messages HOPING to get a reaction but will continue even if this doesn't happen". My response to this was "That works on some forums, such as chat rooms, etc. But on modern social media everyone is his/her own channel."
That's when it dawned on me. Here is the disconnect. This is why it's so difficult to explain to inexperienced people exactly what is going on when someone makes a throw-away remark on their Twitter public timeline. It's not immediately obvious that everyone really is his or her own channel and that generally speaking anyone who wants to listen has to tune in. It's so obvious to most of us that we don't bother explaining it that way. Instead we talk about the various modes of communication that people can be engaged in on Twitter and attempt to split hairs. It's only by building up an analogy based on a traditional communications model that we are able to show this plainly - to even see it plainly. If a journalist writing for a computer magazine can be led to believe that Twitter Joke Trial was an example of trolling, then what is a judge to think?
I have had a constructive conversation today with that article's author and have found that she genuinely meant no harm. She was sorry to have upset people and is even a supporter of the cause.