If you had zero contact with the Internet but watched a lot of television, you’d probably think social networking is Satan’s new weapon of duping and corruption.

On a strict diet of Today Tonight and The Project, it would only seem fair to assume every Facebooker is a cunning child molester, every Instagrammer a serial narcissist and every Tweeter a loosely-hinged sociopath capable of entering a blind rage of rude remarks at the drop of a hat.

You’d be wrong about Facebook, dead on about Instagram, but only partially right about the hostility on Twitter.

Yes, Twitter is a dream for anyone who wants to engage in harassment of public figures, but is this really a new thing? For thousands of years, humankind has revelled in the tormenting and belittling of others, continually finding newer and better ways to partake in the frivolity. Is it civil behaviour? Gosh no, but at the very least, Twitter isn’t any guiltier than these time-tested tirades.

Booing

The concept of booing dates back to Ancient Greece, although back then no one used the word “boo” specifically. When Cleisthenes, an Athenian born around 570 BC, came to power he instated audience participation at public events as a civic duty. The townspeople were expected to applaud to express their approval of a performance or shout to express disapproval. The Ancient Romans upped the ante, letting the cheers and jeers of the crowd determine whether a gladiator would live or die.

While the phrase is probably older, “boo” entered the English vernacular in the 19th Century and is still popular today. The usual casualties are baseball and soccer players, but that’s their fault for playing boring sports.

 

Illustration by Alex Wallace

Illustration by Alex Wallace

 

Letters to the editor

While reader-mail may get buried under headlines, “Letters to the Editor” (LTTE) historically has been one of the most important sections of a publication. Back when two-way media was unthinkable, for anyone to be able to publicly voice his or her opinion was an invaluable tool for discourse, no matter how limited. The letter to the editor allowed readers to provide thoughtful responses to editorial, but many saw it as an opportunity to hypercritically attack whoever they saw fit and have continued to do so today.

LTTEs are the weapon of choice for the highbrow, or at least those that consider themselves to be, so the swearing tends to be replaced by sarcastic analogies. In 2010, the Sydney Morning Herald received a particularly aggressive letter that described a recent editorial as a “journalistic abomination” and called handicapped chimps “the only cretins who might conceivably find this article in any way entertaining or insightful.”

 

“Diss” track

Paul McCartney’s contribution to music is generally boiled down to his role in The Beatles, but let’s give him a bit more credit – he and wife Linda also wrote the first widely popular song of insult. Too Many People was a public jab at former band mate John Lennon, who later returned some punches in his song How Do You Sleep? Fast-forward to the 80s and the rise in hip-hop’s popularity, and the phenomenon became an everyday occurrence, known onwards as the ‘diss track.’

Notable beefs include the Jay-Z v Nas conflict and the Tim Dog v Snoop Dogg quarrel. While diss tracks may seem hostile, the violent thoughts rarely amount to more than words and are often accused of being written purely for publicity purposes. This means the hip-hop scene is a safe place for expression, except in the case of 2Pac and Notorious B.I.G, whose words resulted in their own gangland killings.

Fruit/egg/shoe throwing

When something is turned into a projectile, it instantly becomes more intense (case in point – projectile vomiting), so it’s no surprise that everyday items are often thrown in moments of ire. Eggs and produce are popular candidates to be used as missiles because not only do they bruise and splatter, they can also be thrown in a rotten state, adding insult to injury. As it takes time for food to spoil, such an attack requires an unexpected amount of foresight.

Depending on the circumstances, a shoe may be the preferred object to throw. Shoe throwing dates at least as far back as the Old Testament days, where Psalm 60:8 proclaims, “I will throw my sandals on Edom.” The hurling of footwear is considered immensely offensive in many Middle Eastern countries, as shoes are symbolic of dirt and dominance, but the tactic is also employed abroad – former US President George W. Bush was the target of an airborne boot assault in 2008, and in a trademark show of arse-kissing mimicry, former Prime Minister John Howard narrowly avoided his own phantom kicks on two occasions.

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Australia has already seen at least one harebrained crusade to “stop the trolls” and it certainly won’t be the last, but these campaigns are doomed to fail because they don’t recognise that the internet isn’t to blame, nor the culture built around it. If there’s one thing humans have over the animal kingdom, it’s the resourcefulness to create ways to fulfil our needs. So they can take away our 140-word assaults, but they’ll never take away our desire to be jerks.

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