Essays on Technology and Culture

Don’t Shit In The Punchbowl

I want you to imagine you’re at a party. Not a great party, more like one of those dull work parties, where nobody is really thrilled to be there, but attendance is mandatory. And imagine, if you will, someone saunters in and takes a gigantic dump in the punchbowl.

What would you do? What do you do?

Bringing it up with a manager seems like a safe bet. So you tell the person in charge of the party that someone took a shit in the punchbowl. “Yeah, yeah, whatever.” they say. “We’ll get someone to take a look.”

So the party continues, with a big turd floating in the punchbowl. Occasionally, someone tries to get punch, ignorant of the turd, and is stopped by someone with enough sense to know you don’t drink from a turd-filled punchbowl. The conversation at the party shifts from work mundanity to why there’s a turd in the punchbowl, who shat it, and why nobody’s done anything about it.

“Yeah,” says Dawn in accounting, “I brought it up with the Office Manager an hour ago, and it’s still there.”

Now, it turns out, this party is actually being sponsored by one of your company’s clients. So, when the client’s guy shows up and sees the turd-loaded punchbowl, what happens then? They technically paid for that punch that nobody can drink.

Suddenly, now it’s important. Nobody at the party can drink the punch, the entire vibe is ruined, and nobody’s happy—but because someone with a financial stake in having drinkable punch raised the issue, now someone’s motivated to address it.

Any similarity to the above story to recent events involving a certain right-wing provocateur—by which I mean serial harasser—on Twitter, is far from coincidental.

It’s incumbent upon any organization that tries to be a space for social interactions online, that they both acknowledge someone’s going to try and take a shit in the punchbowl. It’s human nature. Someone’s always going to try to ruin the fun for everyone else. When this happens, you can’t just stand aside, tsk, and then fall back on some vague platitudes on “free expression,” or whatnot. Instead, you remove the turd, you dump out the punch, you clean the bowl—or just replace it completely—and kick the punchbowl pooper out of the party.

And that last step is not censorship. If someone shat in the punchbowl because they didn’t like the punch, didn’t like the party, or didn’t like the company running the party, it doesn’t matter. There’s better, politer, more constructive, and less disgusting ways to express your dissent. Ways that don’t ruin the party for everyone else, that don’t risk making everyone sick, and might actually make things better.

Let’s dispense with the metaphors for a bit.

Internet trolls and abusers love to make a false equivalency between their targeted campaigns of hate and simply “disagreeing” with what their victim is saying. This is absurd on the face of it, but I’ll explain why in a bit more detail that is inevitably going to read a bit like a Monty Python sketch.

Disagreement is an intellectual process, wherein you express a contrary view to someone and present evidence and reasoning to back it up. Harassment and abuse is insulting, threatening, and hounding a person with repetitive comments—even if those are attached to a valid disagreement.

To put it another way, disagreement is saying “I don’t agree, because of x, y, and z.” Harassment and abuse is saying “I don’t agree, because of x, y, and I will murder you and your family because of it.” The former of these is protected speech. The latter is a criminal threat, but good luck getting it prosecuted in a court of law.

And, while we’re on the subject, nobody online is obligated to get into a debate with you if you disagree. Even if you’re polite about it. Someone’s refusal to debate you is not even close to the same thing as being harassed or abused yourself.

As long as the trolls have free reign to shit in the punchbowl, everyone else is going to have a very unpleasant experience on Twitter. By banning one of the service’s serial punchbowl poopers, they’ve at least taken a major step in showing they care, just a little bit, about having punch that’s free of turds for all of us to enjoy.

My suspicion is, however, that they only care because the punch was paid for by someone who needs to have Milo’s latest victim using Twitter as part of the promotional strategy for the new Ghostbusters. Only by threatening Twitter’s ad revenue could Jack and his team decide that enough was enough, and give Milo a long overdue push out the door.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad he’s gone. I just don’t have much hope that Twitter’s going to do much to prevent anyone else from shitting in the punchbowl. I hope I get proven wrong.