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Twitter trolls -- never the Twain they meet

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BRISBANE -- Twitter trolls have driven an Australian model to the brink of suicide, sparking a debate on Twitter about what is wrong with it and why so many people are nasty in the cyber world.

The debate has ranged from why we're obsessed with online communication to our 21st-century habit of speaking in the language of a 19th-century telegram to, perhaps most crucially, where's Mark Twain when we need him?

Charlotte Dawson was hospitalized last week after a night of abuse from trolls who urged her to kill herself in a variety of ways, including this charming missive -- "stick your head in a toaster.''

Dawson was still, inexplicably, twittering amid this maelstrom but finally wrote: "Hope this ends the misery," followed by "You win X," followed by an attempted overdose and an ambulance trip to the psychiatric ward of a Sydney hospital.

"I've never had death threats of this ferocity. I've never had a campaign of this ferocity,'' she told current affairs show 60 Minutes a few days after being released.

The potentially tragic incident sparked an intense discussion about new media and its odious band of trolls who, rather than warmly embracing one another amid the sunny uplands of global communication, slouch about, denigrating and humiliating their fellow human beings.

It's hard to hate the trolls, partly because in modern marketing parlance they're beautifully branded.

Straight from a Grimm fairy tale, who among us is not intrigued by a band of tiny Shrek look-alikes, giggling malevolently beneath our electronic bridges?

And they do have a following. Many look on in delighted horror as they roam impishly across the Internet making mean-spirited comments everywhere they go, while showing little capacity for fellowship with their brethren.

Often a pack of trolls will descend into a bitter, snarling fight as the original but long-forgotten object of their scorn can only gaze on in startled incomprehension.

What on earth is wrong with these people is a mystery, especially when you consider the majority of us serenely negotiate a daily social landscape without so much as a rude word or raised voice.

And Twitter is a challenge when you have just 140 characters in which to create a calumny. Samuel Morse is probably gazing on with a grunt of satisfaction as millions manage it, though not with great aplomb.

"Go hang yourself" was the first gormless tweet that sparked the spiral leading to Dawson's attempted suicide.

Samuel was no troll. "What hath God wrought?" was his first telegram (the first tweet?) sent in May 1844. That question, lifted from the Bible, finally seems appropriate in a communication age evolving far beyond the dreams of a pastor's son.

For the next century, Sam's telegraph only re-affirmed the Shakespearean adage that brevity is the soul of wit. Generations chortled happily at weddings as far-off relatives sent brief and amusing telegrams to be read after the guests had consumed enough alcohol to believe Uncle Vince's version of Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime rivalled Dean Martin's.

American writer Mark Twain elevated the telegram to a literary art form with that 1897 message from London: "Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated," which easily slipped under the 140 rule and was re-tweeted for more than a century.

Twain once claimed to have telegraphed a dozen close friends declaring "Flee at once -- all is discovered." On his telling, they all left town immediately.

Now that's funny. Maybe not LOL funny, but funny nonetheless in a chuckling, tweedy, pipe-smoking, English university faculty kind of way. Yet few precious Twitterers can replicate that sort of humour a century on, and they needn't even run down to the post office when the muse is upon them.

Today, the challenge to amuse and inspire and occasionally inform in short form has opened a Pandora's box of nastiness where the charmless and socially inept command much of the attention and the witty and generous spirits wilt on the sidelines.

The British comic/writer-actor Stephen Fry does give it the good ol' college try, sometimes giving us a credible 21st-century Twain, but we desperately need more of them, if only to shame the ignorant into lifting their game.

There are no doubt a few stone-evil souls amid the trolls, people who genuinely want to inflict serious emotional damage on people they have never met.

But the majority are probably just too stupid to grasp the awful compounding impact of vindictive words when they start bouncing off satellites and spreading themselves, gremlin-like, across the entire world.

Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press Australia correspondent. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 7, 2012 A10

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