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Tweet in haste, repent at leisure

Twitter can be a merciless playground full of cruel name-calling and deeply personal insults. But that ten seconds it takes to write a tweet can have long-lasting repercussions.

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A few months ago the UK Twittersphere was abuzz with a cautionary tale that found its way into the national newspapers and sparked countless bar room debates.

London-based PR executive Mufadal Jiwaji, an employee of high-profile agency Hill+Knowlton, found himself at the business end of a Twitchfork mob when he posted the following comment about journalist Grace Dent during her appearance on a comedy quiz show: ‘@gracedent reminds me of a girlfriend I once had. By girlfriend I mean that time I accidentally made love to an ugly abhorrent horse.’

Clearly Jiwaji’s tweet was unforgivable – as much for its lack of wit as its sexism – and yet you can easily see how such a lapse of judgement could occur. Caught up in the knockabout spirit of a satirical news programme, his bid to demonstrate his rapier wit ended up with him skewering himself.

To his credit, Jiwaji instantly realised he’d overstepped the mark, especially when he received a response from @gracedent: ‘I’m wondering, as a public relations firm I work with, what your thinking was in sending me this message?’
@mufadal: ‘It was naive and ill-warranted. I won’t delete it, as I ought to bare [sic] the full brunt of my idiocy.’
@gracedent: ‘You’ll bear the brunt of your idiocy at 10am tomorrow morning when you’re unemployed. Good luck.’

Of course, Jiwaji is by no means the first person to tweet in haste and repent at leisure. There are certain sports and movie celebrities (Charlie Sheen, anyone?) for whom a smartphone and a Twitter account are like a loaded pistol in the hands of a toddler. Someone’s bound to get hurt.

And let’s face it, Twitter – with its instant disposability and frenetic pace – actively encourages us to make rash statements in the pursuit of LOLZ. I’m not talking here about toxic ‘trolls’. I’m talking about normal guys like you or me who get a bit… carried away.

Worryingly, Twitter seems to encourage certain baser impulses in men, especially when it comes to tweeting to or about celebrities. Every day on my timeline I see examples of guys whose ‘witty’ critiques are little more than bullying. It’s especially contemptible when their insults are directed at women.

In their defence, many of these tweets aren’t actively malicious; it’s often the same clumsy over-exuberance that leads teenage boys to assume that girls will respond to vicious piss-taking in the same way as their male friends. Cue tears, recriminations and shame-faced backtracking.

Indeed, even though I was the first to spring to Grace Dent’s defence, I confess I’ve been guilty of similar crimes. A few days after the Jiwaji furore, I tweeted about a female politician who, in my opinion, looks a bit like a large rodent.

The comment was widely retweeted. Initially I was rather pleased with myself. But an hour later I began to feel uncomfortable. Sure, people in the public eye have to be thick-skinned, but who’s to say the woman in question didn’t read those cruel tweets and cry herself to sleep?

You could of course argue that politicians are fair game, but comparing someone to a rodent isn’t exactly a contribution to political discourse. It’s puerile and ungentlemanly.

So, in the interests of potentially saving another Mufadal Jiwaji from getting into hot water after running off at the thumb, here are some basic Twitter rules:

•Before you insult someone on Twitter, ask yourself  if you would make the same comment if that person  were standing in front of you.
•Never comment on someone’s appearance unless they’re really asking for it (ie their surname is Kardashian).
•Never make sexual comments about a woman, even  if she’s a politician. She will almost certainly retweet it  to all her followers, who will think that you are a trouser-rubbing perv.
•And finally, if you really must be insulting, make sure it’s funny. I mean ‘ugly abhorrent horse’? What is that?

Damon Syson was once a “sexpert” columnist for a magazine, but now turns his attention to Twitter for his first-ever alpha. column. Follow him @DamonSyson to see if he heeds his own Twitter rules.

There are certain celebrities for whom a smartphone and a Twitter account are like a loaded pistol in the hands of a toddler.